Proposed amendment to Lee County Charter sparks controversy
Lee County residents living outside city limits may have a more difficult time joining a municipality with a newly proposed amendment to the county charter. The rule would require the Lee Board of County Commissioners to approve annexations to go before the voters.
The Cape Coral City Council recently passed a resolution to oppose the amendment, which will be presented to the Charter Review Commission — a group of 15 citizens who look at the charter and propose amendments and revisions.
This kind of review occurs every eight years. The members of the review commission are appointed by the county commission and serve for 18 months.
At the council meeting Mayor John Gunter said all the city managers and city attorneys in Lee had met to discuss the proposal.
“Our stance, as a collective body of all the municipalities, has been that we would oppose any charter change at the county level where they would have the last say, basically, whether voluntary annexation could occur or couldn’t occur,” he said. Gunter added that it could be a violation of personal property rights.
There is currently no language in the charter about voluntary annexation. The process has been that an area seeking to be annexed approaches a municipality with its request to be brought into the city limits. The city council then takes a vote on whether the annexation goes on the general election ballot.
The Village of Estero Mayor Jon McLain said he has concerns that the amendment offers no criteria by which the county commissioners could deny an annexation a spot on the ballot.
“I can tell you, one of the reasons they're doing this is they want to make sure that Lee County is compensated appropriately for the infrastructure that they put in [place],” he said.
McLain said Estero is not trying to get out of paying the costs for services but that the village can manage those costs better than the county. Estero maintained some of Lee County services when it was incorporated in 2014, like the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, but it created its own services as well.
“When we looked at what we were being charged by Lee County, we actually could deliver those same services in a better way, at a lower cost,” he said.
“So, in fact, yes, Lee County will lose revenue,” he added. “But the question is, what are they going to do with that revenue? Do they have a huge staff that wants to maintain their jobs…a staff that doesn't know much about your needs in Florida Gulf Coast, in Estero, in Fort Myers, Cape Coral and the like?”
McLain said he believes the best governance for the municipalities is at the most local level. “We're trying to eliminate those layers of government that add inefficiency and inflexibility for us to enjoy the quality of life that we want,” he said.
McLain said there have been residents bordering Estero who have expressed interest in being annexed, and he believes there could be similar desires among people living along Corkscrew Road.
“We provide more services, and we have the least expensive tax rate in all of Southwest Florida,” he said.
Cole Peacock has lived in Whiskey Creek, an unincorporated and deed-restricted subdivision, for 19 years. He is president of the community’s civic association, and also served on the charter review group in the early 2000's.
Peacock said the amendment could be construed as a “political-agenda push to try and gain more and more control” on the part of the county commission.
“There’s the potential for revenue loss,” he said. “There’s the potential for voting structures to be changed. A district may not be the same district when you start to do votes and census.”
“If you’re taking away control of municipalities, unless those municipalities have proven to not be functional, then I don’t believe you should do that,” he said. “I think you have a state, a county, a city structure for a purpose.”
Peacock said the benefit to living in unincorporated Lee is not having to pay both county and city taxes. He is happy with his current services and sees no need for annexation. But he said other areas may want to seek it.
“Some of the newer communities that are farther stretched out, whether it’s down by Estero or somewhere else, there’s so much more work that has to go into getting services out there,” he said. “And they may not be getting the same kind of treatment.”
At the September charter review meeting, the mayors of Fort Myers, Sanibel and the Village of Estero expressed their opposition to the amendment. All three cited the Home Rule Charter, which gives local governing bodies the right to craft their own ordinances if they don’t conflict with state and federal laws.
Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson said it is important for a city to expand its borders if it is in the best interest of the people and the city.
“Requiring the county commission approval for voluntary annexations will cost property owners interested in annexation time and money to seek the additional level of approval,” he said. “Placing further restrictions on the ability of property owners to voluntarily annex their properties into a municipality is an infringement upon citizens’ property rights.”
Anderson voiced concerns over annexation petitions being denied “for arbitrary, political or subjective reasons” – which he said could cause divisiveness among the cities and the county – because no criteria have been proposed for approval or denial.
He added that revenue lost to the county by annexation would be offset by a reduction in operating costs for services from the county.
“Most of the time, the reason people want to annex is because they feel like the municipality will provide a higher level of service, whether it be law enforcement, fire protection, roads, the solid waste, whatever it is,” Anderson said in a later interview. “Now, with that greater level of service, it does affect your taxes because you’ll now start paying the city taxes.”
Anderson pointed to law enforcement as an example. He said that Fort Myers has a much more concentrated number of officers because it has its own police force.
“So your level of law enforcement services tends to be a little bit tighter, not necessarily better, just greater,” Anderson said.
Unincorporated areas in the county use the services of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
South Fort Myers resident Hank Free and his wife have lived in Florimond Manor, an unincorporated private community off Idlewild, for almost 30 years.
Free said the community has major drainage problems and floods with heavy rains. Because it’s a private neighborhood, residents maintain the roads, some of which are unpaved.
Free thinks more restrictions would be a good thing. “I wouldn’t mind being incorporated,” Free said. “People out here, they don’t care if the roads flood, and they don’t care if people park their trailers out in front.”
While the City of Fort Myers does have restrictions for parking trailers in certain areas, residents can park them in the side yard. Cape Coral, however, is less lenient on where trailers, boats and RV's can be stored.
Free said he does not believe the commissioners should have the final say on whether an area can be annexed into a city because it takes away citizens’ rights.
At the charter review meeting, Sanibel Mayor Richard Johnson said he and the city council have already passed a resolution against the amendment.
“This does erode home rule,” he said. “We also believe that the best place to make decisions about these policies are in the local jurisdictions.”
Johnson said the amendment would diminish individual rights and infringe upon the authority of the municipalities in Lee County.
“If the proposed amendment would be approved, property owners seeking voluntary annexation would be subject to an unnecessary expense related to county bureaucracy and process,” Johnson said.
John Agnew, the Sanibel city attorney, said the current process functions sufficiently but that an alternative would be to utilize interlocal agreements whereby the cities would work with the county.
“And we can do that absent any additional legislation,” he said. “That's simply a phone call and a sit-down meeting to initiate that process.”
Phillip Cross, who has lived in Florimond Manor since 1986, bought his property because it is a private community outside the city limits. He said he does not see much of a difference in services and feels there is no reason to join the city.
“I don’t know exactly what expenses I would incur on that,” he said, referring to paying city taxes if his community were to seek annexation. Cross would also want to know more about the restrictions imposed by the city that would affect the neighborhood.
He said he agrees with the county having control over whether citizens can vote on annexations. “The county should have the final say in it because we are a county,” he said. “We’re not in the city.”
The amendment was proposed by Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, District 2, at the May charter review meeting because of growth in the county and its impacts on services and the environment.
“What I’m looking at doing is something that we can do in the future to help us, the county, and we can put in the charter to restrict some of that growth when the cities are voluntarily annexing areas in the county [that] is green space,” he said.
He referred to growth in the city of Fort Myers where there was no proper infrastructure in place for utilities because the area was developed so quickly.
"And they want, then, to put that off on the county, which you, the taxpayers or users, if you live in the city of Fort Myers here, you’ll be paying higher fees because of that,” he said.
Pendergrass later said that more open conversations between the county and cities would improve the standard of living.
“I am personally trying to ensure that as we grow as a community, that planning is compatible with neighboring municipalities and that we provide the much needed infrastructure, road, water and sewer projects that will contribute to a great quality of life for all Lee County and City taxpayers,” he wrote in an email.
Mayor Jon Gunter of Cape Coral said other mayors in Lee County will back resolutions to oppose the amendment. Gunter said he hopes that the cities can quash the amendment before it reaches the county commission.
If the amendment is approved by the charter review commission with a three-fifths vote, it will be submitted to the county commission for consideration to be placed on the 2024 ballot. If four-fifths of the review committee approves it, it will be placed directly on the ballot. The next review meeting is October 10.
WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you. Gwen Salata is an intern for WGCU News, and a student in the Democracy Watch program in the FGCU Journalism program.