We can understand why the Friends of Lakewood Ranch, the group opposing incorporation, have begun a petition drive. The petition is directed at Florida lawmakers to urge them to oppose any bills in favor of Lakewood Ranch incorporation in the 2012 legislative session (assuming such a bill is crafted).
We get it: When you’re in a battle, you do what you have to do, and you be aggressive about it. No stone unturned, as the cliche goes.
To an extent, though, this petition drive appears pre-emptive and before its time. We say that because it is under way well before the residents of Lakewood Ranch have armed themselves with enough information to analyze all of the relevant facts and issues to know whether incorporation makes sense.
More education is required. This became clear at the public forum/debate between the opposing sides in early May. While that forum was informative, many of the attendees left still unsure of the economic and tax consequences of incorporating or not incorporating.
For some, the issue is visual. They want to see in print how their taxation would be affected before and after. They want to know how their property rights and freedom would be affected. They want to see how the entire picture is likely to look with or without incorporation.
This is a huge issue. And it needs proper time for seasoning.
Take Marco Island in Collier County, for instance. It took six referenda in 17 years — from 1980 to 1997 — before Marco Island residents finally approved incorporation.
Over in Palm Coast, that 40,000-acre planned community began in 1969 and operated as an unincorporated service district for 30 years before its residents approved incorporation in 1999.
In Centennial, Colo., the incorporation debate was compacted into only a two-and-a-half year period, from 1998 to 2000. But it was intense. We recommend your reading Centennial’s journey to incorporation and its after-effects in Governing magazine (see http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/Sudden-City.html). It’s a fascinating account of all of the issues its leaders faced before and after incorporation.
Here’s a sampling of what happened before the vote, according to Governing:
“In a region where citizens’ allegiances had never run beyond the local level, they held 100 regional ‘town meetings’ to argue that forming their own city would be preferable to ‘taxation without representation.’
“Volunteers spent most Saturdays for two-and-a-half years buttonholing neighbors at grocery stores to discuss the esoteric details of annexation and incorporation. The idea caught on: Even though most residents had moved to the area to escape city government and high taxes, yards sprouted with 19,000 signs, and mailboxes and bulletin boards were blanketed with 250,000 brochures extolling the proposal to create a new level of government.”
Centennial’s incorporation also became a court case that went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. The High Court ruled Centennial’s residents should be allowed to have a referendum on incorporation.
When 77% of the Centennial voters approved incorporation, Centennial became the largest city in America to incorporate. Its population was 104,000. Worth noting: Its incorporation came about when a neighboring city initially wanted to annex Centennial.
In Lakewood Ranch’s case, incorporation has been an increasing part of the public discourse only since 2007. Comparatively, more seasoning, more debate and more information are warranted for residents before the issue is ready for the Legislature.
Besides, if you read the requirements for incorporation to be presented to the Legislature (Florida Statutes Chapter 165.041), some of the information required has yet to be gathered and disseminated so that Lakewood Ranch residents themselves know the potential consequences to incorporation. Here’s one piece: a five-year operational plan that includes proposed staffing, building acquisition and construction, debt issuance, and budgets.
While we have no qualms with the Friends of Lakewood Ranch’s zeal and aggressiveness in wanting to derail incorporation efforts before the matter goes before the Legislature, we nonetheless would urge Lakewood Ranch residents to hold off before signing petitions. Give yourself the opportunity to digest more information — as well as give the East County Observer more time to present it — to make an intelligent and fully informed decision.
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