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County Commission moves forward on retaining control of land use in annexed areas

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

In a Special Meeting today, the Alachua County Commission decided to ask staff to work on a Charter Amendment that allows the County to retain control of land use and zoning, even if land is annexed into a city. 

The current Alachua County Charter says, “Each municipality shall be responsible for land use planning within its respective boundaries and the county shall be responsible for land use planning in the unincorporated area.” 

The proposed Charter Amendment is based on a similar provision in the Seminole County Charter. Seminole County’s Charter designates a Rural Area in which the County controls land use (but not zoning). Any municipal land use ordinances are superseded by the County’s future land use designations.

The Alachua County Commission voted to ask staff to come back with language that says the purpose of the Charter Amendment is to “Preserve areas of rural and agricultural land use, and discourage sprawl” and to “Protect areas with significant natural resource value.”

In terms of which land to designate in the Charter, most of the commissioners were in favor of designating all unincorporated land in the County, but Commissioner Mike Byerly said that would be politically difficult to defend (the Charter Amendment must be passed by the voters), so they compromised on Map Option #2A.

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Under the proposal, if land is annexed from the County, the City or property owner would have to apply to the County Commission for any desired changes to land use or zoning. The County would retain land use and zoning authority up to the point where they vote to allow municipalities to have that authority. 

The Commission decided 4-0 (Cornell absent) to ask staff to keep working on this with the above guidance.

The Commission next took up SAFEBOR, the Santa Fe River Bill of Rights (sometimes called “Rights of Nature”), which has been proposed as a Charter Amendment by both the County Commission and the County Charter Review Commission. The proposal would give rivers and other natural features legal standing in court.

County Attorney Sylvia Torres went through a lengthy review of the case law, saying she could not counsel them to pass this because it is “very, very likely to be found unconstitutional.” She said that laws have been passed by other communities, and they have all been overturned; many of these cases have been settled, so the amounts of money that exchanged hands are not known, but Torres said that existing case law would entitle the prevailing party to attorneys’ fees, so losing a challenge could be expensive for the County.

The Commission did not take any action to move SAFEBOR forward, but the County Charter Review Commission is still working on it, although their attorney told the County Commission that he has given them similar advice to that given by County Attorney Torres.

The Commission also discussed county-wide impact fees but decided that they didn’t need a Charter Amendment to implement those, so they decided to bring it up again at a future policy meeting. 

They then discussed protections for citizen-initiated ordinances; the language would not allow any actions by the County Commission for five years after a citizen-initiated ordinance is passed, and any changes would require a supermajority vote. The Commission decided not to take that up this year, since it can go on the ballot in any election year and this year’s ballot may be crowded.