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County commission approves purchase of Budget Inn, passes airboat ordinance

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Alachua County Commission’s first “hybrid” meeting was held on November 10, with a quorum of three commissioners in the same room and other participants attending via Zoom. Public comment was taken from people in a nearby conference room and by phone. Commissioners Robert Hutchinson, Ken Cornell, and Marihelen Wheeler were physically present, and Commissioners Chuck Chestnut and Mike Byerly participated virtually.

Sports events center

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The board discussed a request to “proceed to negotiate with the most responsive proposer for a sports events center.” The staff presentation explained that the County had gone through a process to find the best location for such a venue, and they had settled on the Celebration Pointe area because of proximity to hotels and other amenities that are attractive to people who travel to sports events. Celebration Pointe then submitted an unsolicited proposal, which prompted the County to advertise for other proposals. Celebration Pointe submitted the only response to the advertisement. 

Cornell moved to “direct staff to negotiate a term sheet for the finance, construction, and operation of a sports event center with the most responsive proposer, which I guess is Viking, and bring back results of negotiations for the board’s consideration.” The motion passed unanimously.

Budget Inn

Later in the meeting, they decided to purchase the Budget Inn on SW 13th St as permanent supportive housing for very-low-income individuals. According to staff, the benefit of this location is that it is on bus routes, near food sources, and near medical services. There will be 36 units available.

Permanent supportive housing is an intervention that places a homeless person in an apartment. They are expected to pay 30% of their income in rent, and some form of rent assistance pays the rest. Case management staff visit as often as needed to help them learn to be a good tenant and a good neighbor. Sometimes that support can be tapered off over time, and sometimes it continues for the rest of the person’s life.

The appraisals of the property came in at $2.25 million and $2.075 million, for an average of $2,162,000. The purchase price is $2.3 million, and the total cost of the effort is projected to be $2.36 million. The property will need significant renovation before it can be occupied.

Staff recommendation was for the funds to come out of reserves. 

Byerly tried to get an answer to a question about whether it is more cost-effective to purchase and operate a facility like this or work with private landlords to provide the housing, but he didn’t really get an answer. He said the project should be viewed as an experiment and evaluated in the future to determine whether it’s a good model for housing.

Staff members said that it can be difficult to find private landlords willing to take on renters who have criminal histories or addiction problems; this facility could provide a “second chance” for those people and allow them to build a history of being a good tenant.

Byerly also wanted to know whether they could prioritize the housing for people who had been in Alachua County for some period of time, but the County Attorney wasn’t comfortable with that because the federal definition of residency is where the person intends to live, not where they have previously lived.

The motion to purchase the Budget Inn passed unanimously.

Moratorium on development in the rural commercial agricultural area

The board passed on first reading an ordinance that would stop any new development applications in the rural commercial agricultural area for no longer than 6 months. The moratorium affects about 40 parcels that have commercial zoning in rural areas. The moratorium will come up for a second vote in a few weeks. 

Airboat ordinance

Since Alachua County’s airboat ordinance was ruled unconstitutional by a county judge and then found to conflict with state statutes on appeal, the County has been looking for a way to regulate airboats. Assistant County Attorney Corbin Hansen explained that the new language would “regulate the operation of airboats specifically and prohibit the operation of airboats in a manner that endangers the public safety or welfare of an individual, endangers or impacts the natural habitat or ecosystem of the waters of Alachua County. It would also prohibit the operation of an airboat between one half-hour after sunset and one half-hour before sunrise. The rationale between the sunrise and sunset is the safety of other users of the lakes and the birds; the ecosystem and the natural vegetation can all be avoided more easily during high visibility hours.”

During public comment, Lane Stevens of the Florida Airboat Association said that several statements in the preamble of the ordinance were not correct: one “whereas clause provides that airboats can navigate shallow waters otherwise not accessible by other vessels with onboard engines.” He said that mud boats and jet skis can both navigate shallow waters but are not regulated by this ordinance. He said the ordinance claims to protect other people who are out on the water at night without lights but doesn’t require non-motorized vessels to have lights, which would solve that issue. “And if you are so concerned about damage to vegetation, then those vessels that do damage should be regulated, and no person, whether on foot, land-based vehicle, or vessels of any type should be allowed to approach the rookeries if that’s such a big concern. Your ordinance is again aimed at discriminating against one type of user.”

Dave Worthy, a county resident, said the ordinance and backup information “does not address or even show any scientific data as to what unique threat is posed by airboats, what specific aquatic vegetation airboats and only airboats damage.” He pointed out that the referenced study of nesting birds was conducted between 7:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., which are not the hours affected by the ordinance. “And the study actually found that walking was actually the greatest disturbance to those particular birds.”

One caller said airboats were being singled out and challenged commissioners to come see how quiet his airboat is. Another said airboats have a completely flat bottom, so they don’t damage wildlife or plants like boats with propellers can. 

After public comment, Hansen clarified that the reason the other types of boats aren’t regulated is that Florida statutes specifically authorize local governments “to enact ordinances discriminating against the operation of airboats” with a 2/3 vote of the governing body.

Wheeler asked whether they were wasting their time by “putting out something this vague.” Hutchinson replied,  “We’re going to end up in court over it. We want it to be as solid as we can be.”

The ordinance passed unanimously. 

Cornell promises to support mask mandate “until we have a vaccine”

During commission comment, Cornell said he had just completed a 2-week drive to Seattle, and “in that nine days of traveling, without exception, the mask issue was actually handled… as good as Alachua County. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised at the amount of businesses that understood that wearing a mask was the primary way to keep the economy going and their local businesses… These are in very conservative places that I went to… so I wanted to share that with all you commissioners, you know, because Hutch, your leadership on this issue started a long, long time ago. And as long as I’m here, until we have a vaccine, I want you to know I’m going to attempt to keep that discussion going because it’s mostly important not just for public health but for our local economy.” [Today Cornell was elected Chair of the newly-installed county commission, which gives him unilateral authority to issue Emergency Orders for Alachua County.]