VALDOSTA -- It took 15 years, three public meetings and numerous discussions for the City of Valdosta to reach the day it would make a decision on annexation of the unincorporated islands. The Valdosta City Council finally reached that day on Thursday night, and made the decision to approve annexation of all unincorporated islands.
The Council's 4-3 vote will bring 90 islands into the city with an effective date set for Aug. 1.
Councilman Robert Yost introduced the motion to the Council that approves annexation of the islands and the proposed rezoning classifications with 16 conditions and stipulations.
In favor of the motion were David Sumner, Sonny Vickers, James Wright and Yost, with John Eunice, J.R. Sessions and Mayor Pro Tem Willie T. Head voting against annexation.
With discussion on annexation beginning in the early 1990s, Yost said the council had dedicated too much time not to follow through with annexing the islands.
"We have spent a great amount of time looking at this issue and we have spent a great deal of money looking at this issue," Yost said. "I want to make it very clear that we have done our best to find the
best attorneys in the state to look at this plan. Those attorneys said it looks good and looks like it will stand up. We have tried very hard to come back with a motion that is fair and will benefit all."
Before voting on the motion, some Councilmen made their thoughts on annexation clear during a discussion that lasted at least 30 minutes.
The annexation is expected to affect about 800 residents and 200 school children. The main purposes stated for annexation have been to eliminate public safety issues and confusion regarding emergency response and to replace wells and septic tanks that the health department has regarded as a health concern.
However, Sessions said he didn't see a strong enough argument to support annexation of all the islands. Sessions had previously introduced a proposed plan for voluntary annexation.
"There is no factual data to support the claim that it's a health issue," Sessions said. "It's been said the islands are a nuisance, but how many complaints have been received and what have these complaints been for? It could be a nuisance, but a lot of things are a nuisance and we put up with them."
Pointing to a map indicating where the scattered islands are located, Councilman Sonny Vickers called the issue a "nightmare."
"We need to be able to find our lines," Vickers said. "I think we need to have a fine line."
Under Yost's motion, 16 conditions and stipulations outline zoning ordinances, water and sewer service along with well and septic tank use.
With Aug. 1 set as an effective date, Yost stated that water and sewer would be provided when requested by 50 percent of the residents of an island when more than 20 parcels constitute an island. The city would allow wells and septic tanks to be used until the city provided water, if the health department and state regulations approved.
In addition, Yost requested for a city master plan that would give a timeline on when utility services would be available to the islands, giving priority to those 50 percent who requested priority service. Property owners would be required to pay costs for extending lines on private property to the city's service.
Yost said he sent the motion to Councilmen and the mayor so they could have an opportunity to review its details before making a decision on annexation.
"I didn't have to send this motion out to you, but we sent it out for you to be able to look at it," Yost said. "The motion is made based on the facts."
City manager Larry Hanson has estimated it would take seven to 10 years to provide water and sewer infrastructure due to complex engineering aspects involved with the parcels.
Hanson said providing the utility infrastructure to the parcels would be funded with future SPLOST funds and was expected to cost about $15 million.
"I would caution you that this is based on a future SPLOST that has not been passed yet," Sessions said. "Where is the money going to come from if the future money fails and you've guaranteed service by 2015?"
While Yost's motion is arranged to implement a priority system for those requesting services immediately, it states that services should not be provided later than Dec. 31, 2015.
Darlene Gaskins said she is concerned about how annexation will impact her and other islanders who have to pay for the services.
"I'm not happy with it," Gaskins said. "We're the ones affected. I have an elderly mother, where's the money going to come from to hook her up to services?"
While Eunice said he would have preferred a voluntary approach to annexation, he added that he would have preferred more time to give definitive answers to the islanders.
"I hate the fact that we can't tell our audience exactly what they will pay to hook onto services," Eunice said. "We did not fully answer all their questions and did not have a plan in place. I'm not against annexation, I just wish we a voluntary approach and more time to the process."
Mayor John Fretti thanked Yost for his motion, but said he, too, is in favor of voluntary annexation.
"For the islanders, this is their way of life. We may not agree with it and it may not agree with our ordinances but I think they should have a part in the process to choose," Fretti said. "I would encourage the Council to vote against the motion."
However, Yost said the city had spent well enough time during meetings and retreats to discuss the issue. Since he was elected to District 6, Yost said the mayor and Council had discussed the issue each year and set it as a goal during the past two years to address annexation.
"We have studied it, considered all opinions, worked to bring the school system together, and listed to the comments of citizens at three public meetings," Yost wrote in his motion.
With the annexation now approved, Hanson said the next steps will be just as intense in order to develop a master plan that transitions the islands into the city.
"We'll hire a consultant to fully develop a master plan for the extension of utilities and begin a lot of in-house work," Hanson said. "We'll be scheduling the mechanisms for getting feedback on desires for water and sewer services and be receiving input. There's a lot of rebalancing we'll have to do based upon the decision made."
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