Alachua County, Cities Argue Whether Amendment Ballot Language Misled Voters

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Were Alachua County voters misled when they narrowly passed a charter amendment giving county officials the final say over land use planning and regulation in their jurisdiction?

Yes, attorneys for the cities of Archer, Alachua and Newberry told Judge Monica Brasington during a virtual hearing Monday in the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court in Gainesville.

Arguing that the amendment should be invalidated and not take effect on Jan. 1, they argued that the ballot language calling for creating a “growth management area” did not signal the actual impact: Municipalities would no longer exercise their own land use rules.

“I don’t think the cities can stress enough the failure to inform the voters of what the primary purpose and the primary ramifications are,” David Theriaque, Alachua City’s attorney, told Brasington.

Lawyers for both the county and the charter review commission contended, however, that it was impossible to explain every detail and ramification given the 75-word limit for amendments.

“The voters are presumed to have normal intelligence,” Robert Swain, the county’s attorney, told the judge.

The three cities each filed a lawsuit challenging the ballot language weeks before voters last month passed the amendment by just 265 votes – 64,569 (50.1%) in favor and 64,304 (49.9%) against. Their suits were consolidated for the court hearing. High Springs has also filed a lawsuit against the amendment, but it was not part of the hearing.

Besides the growth management area, the amendment language stated that the “county’s comprehensive plan and land development regulations will exclusively govern land development in the area, whether inside or outside municipal boundaries.” It also stated the county would “authorize implementing ordinances, provide for removal of lands from the area,” and “that the charter and implementing ordinances shall prevail over conflicting municipal ordinances.”

Scott Walker, the attorney representing Archer and Newberry, reiterated Theriaque’s assertions that voters did not truly understood the ramifications when casting their ballots.

“Nowhere can you find that the chief purpose of this act is to tell all of the cities in Alachua County, that even if you annex property to those cities, that the county will maintain its regulatory authority over land use decisions,” Walker said.

Brasington asked Swain to explain the concept of a growth management area. He called it “a term of art that has been in that particular land use field for decades,” and added, “Management means low density, it means high density, it means making choices, how you manage growth.”

Swain also said county land use regulations would apply when proposed development would affect the area. The county commission would have to permit a city or developer to do otherwise. He said, though, that there was ample land for cities to annex without dipping into the area.

The judge and attorneys for both sides spent time discussing Seminole County v. City of Winter Springs, a 2006 court decision examining a charter amendment creating a rural boundary. The amendment that voters approved in 2004 gave the Seminole County Commission final say on land use matters within environmentally sensitive lands and wilderness areas.

A trial court sided with Winter Springs, concluding that the ballot title and summary were misleading and likely to infringe on a municipality’s right to enact ordinances, Theriaque said.

A state appeals court, however, reversed that decision.

Wade Vose, the Alachua County Charter Review Commission’s attorney, and who drafted the charter amendment under challenge now, noted that the word “annexation” did not appear in that Seminole County amendment’s ballot title or summary. And yet, Vose said, the appeals court still ruled the language was clear enough for voters to understand what was at stake.

In 2006, 21 cities in Pinellas County sued to have all of the proposed charter amendments removed from the ballot that year. The cities contended the charter changes would give the county more authority than what the state allowed, and that review commission had violated Florida’s Sunshine Laws while developing the proposals. A Sixth Judicial Circuit Court judge ruled the following year that the change to the charter was constitutional.

In the Alachua County case, Brasington ordered both sides to submit their respective motions  for summary judgment by Jan. 11. The judge said her ruling would come soon after.

Both the cities and the county said they do not expect any land annexations in the meantime.

About Christian Ortega

Christian is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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