This story was updated at 8:30 a.m. on Monday to reflect the results of the first recount. It was updated just after 3 p.m. to clarify that a second recount will be needed.
A 293-vote margin means Alachua County will have to manually recount ballots to decide the fate of a charter amendment that would give the county greater control over area growth and development, elections officials declared Monday.
After Tuesday, the growth management area amendment was narrowly approved by 64,327 voters, accounting for 50.07% of the total 128,692 cast in the general election. That 175-margin led to a recount at the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office on Sunday in Gainesville.
Ballot scanners dinged and hummed from the early afternoon through the night, as a total of 143,614 ballots were recounted. Twenty-eight volunteers began their counting at 1 p.m., with a second shift of the same number taking over at 10 p.m., officials said.
At 8 a.m., a county elections official emailed the unofficial results to local media: 64,000 (50.11 percent) in favor and 63,707 (49.89) opposed. With a .22% difference, the ballots will be manually recounted Thursday, as the margin landed within a quarter of 1%.
The amendment was designed to prevent the county from overdevelopment, to protect the wetlands, forests and wildlife corridors, said Mark Sexton, a county spokesperson.
“We don’t want a potential developer to try to get around protecting these important places by just annexing into a city,” Sexton said. “We have a lot of conservation lands that we’re looking at in that green area that we hope to acquire in the future for permanent protection.”
Cities could still expand and develop nearby unincorporated lands not protected by the growth management zone, and each municipality would still have enough room to grow before annexing available unincorporated land, he said.
The City of Alachua filed a lawsuit in September, contending that the ballot title and summary were misleading, contained improper political rhetoric, and failed to adequately inform voters of its chief purposes. Archer, High Springs and Newberry soon signaled their agreement with the lawsuit, which was filed in the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court in Gainesville.
To reach Gainesville’s population density of 1 person per 0.31 acres, it would take a surge of 122,283 residents in Newberry, 44,842 for High Springs and 75,107 for Alachua City.
Penny Wheat, chair of the Alachua County Charter Review Commission, which worked over several months to propose a series of amendments, said those figures were calculated to represent how many people can fit in each municipality within their current boundaries.
“It’s only the areas in the county’s growth management area where the county will maintain its growth management plan and land development regulations, so that we will forever have farms and forests and open spaces in Alachua County, unlike many areas in South Florida,” Wheat said.
Those opposing the amendment point to its narrow margin to validate their contention. The inability to control their destinies and develop as their needs see fit is why the amendment met criticism by those outside of Gainesville, Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said.
“I don’t argue the county’s right to be in charge of county territory,” Marlowe said. “I wish they would stop arguing their rights to assert their authority inside the municipality.”
High Springs City Commissioner Linda Jones said another concern is that the growth management area could divert businesses and homeowners elsewhere because of having to comply with both the city’s and county’s regulations.
“We don’t need the board telling us how to annex our land,” Jones said. “If it is passed, we would then have someone looking over our shoulder the whole time.”
Ballots were sorted for the recount based on if they were early votes, absentee or from the day of the election. Eighty-six provisional ballots were included in the recount. Each volunteer received their set of ballots in a sealed bag and fed them through scanners one-by-one. Three high-speed scanners were set aside to prioritize mail-in votes, while 28 were used to count all other ballots.
Any ballot with an overvote, meaning the voter filled both options for the amendment, or an undervote, meaning there was no response, were not included in the recount. After shifts, each scanner’s memory card was replaced to ensure every response was accounted for properly.
Marlowe had said Newberry and other cities would drop their litigation and opposition if the recount found the amendment didn’t pass. If the hand recount holds, a court will likely have to decide its fate.
Correction appended: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the machine recount signified an official outcome. That is not true. A manual recount must still be performed, and the final tally could change.