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Challenges loom for St. George Island incorporation push

Following a series of three guided discussions online, led by
volunteers from the FSU urban and regional planning department, a movement to transform
St. George Island into the county’s third town is moving forward and could
became a reality by the end of 2022.

But it continues to face formidable challenges, not the
least of which is some muted criticism from State Representative Jason Shoaf, who
wants to see clear support of the island’s population before he will consider
filing any legislation in Tallahassee in support of incorporation.

“I will not file any bill for this until I have seen the
results of a local vote and heard the official position of the county
commission. I will take all of that into consideration before taking any action,”
Shoaf wrote in a reply to Shannon Bothwell, one of the members of the St.
George Island Citizen Working Group that is advocating for the move.

“Please take all necessary steps with the Franklin County
Supervisor of Elections to get this issue on the next general ballot if you
want my support,” he wrote. “For the record, I believe adding more government and
taxes is a terrible idea generally. Only if it is absolutely necessary should
we consider it.”

Bothwell had shared with Shoaf the results of three detailed
reports compiled by the Florida State University Department of Urban and
Regional Planning 2021 Spring Studio Capstone Team, a group of experts who have
volunteered to provide guidance to the ad hoc group, that began its work at the
end of 2019. These reports, regarding the conclusions of the Feb. 10, and March
10 and 31 online workshops can be reviewed on the website http://townofsgi.com.

“The meetings were attended by hundreds of people via Zoom
and featured a high degree of engagement, discussion, and questions,” Bothwell
said, in an email to Shoaf. “The workshops demonstrated a lot of common goals
for our community, especially maintaining our low density, protecting our
environment, and preserving our laid-back pace of life.

“In polls taken during the second set of workshops, nearly
60 percent of participating registered voters indicated that they supported
incorporation, with only 23 percent opposed and 20 percent undecided,” she
wrote. “We are still on track to deliver our feasibility study and other
materials to start the agency review process at the beginning of June, with the
goal of having the legislation considered in the 2022 session so that we can
hold a referendum of our voters on this important matter.”

In the summary of the report from the initial Feb. 10
discussion, attended by over 150 people, it was determined that the top three
positive characteristics, or treasures, that the participants valued were low
density, natural beauty and peace.

The report went on to say that the top three areas of
concerns were drainage, road maintenance and zoning.

“Even with light rain many parts of the Island retain water,
especially the roads of the commercial district which hurts local business,”
read the summary of the participants’ views. “The paved roads are full of
potholes and in need of repair while many unpaved roads receive no maintenance
at all.

“The commercial district is being slowly converted to
residential units thanks to a lack of enforcement of zoning codes from the
county,” it said.

The report said that future discussions needed to address “the
payment of both county and municipal taxes if the Island incorporates, how much
would be invested in infrastructure improvements, and whether or not there
would be adequate preparation for coastal risks.”

The second community visioning workshop on March 10 again
drew community members via Zoom and in person at the SGI fire house, and focused
on their interests and attitudes towards incorporation.

The report said the three top driving factors for incorporation
included having local control of future development, an improved allocation of budget
and services so as to allow more control and funding for infrastructure, and increased funding opportunities
through state and federal grants.

The top three concerns against incorporation, said the
report, were higher taxes on island home and business owners, a change in the level
of county assistance with such things as building permits and inspections, and
a less inclusive process for decision-making.

“Community members are concerned that a small segment of the
population would make key decisions for the Island as a whole,” read the
executive summary.

An informal poll conducted at the close of the meeting,
based on the responses of 100 participants, indicted about 52 percent were in
favor of considering it, about 28 were opposed and about 20 percent were
unsure. It indicated that only about half the participants took part in this

third and last workshop, on March 31, focused on answering questions regarding details
of incorporation, on such matters as the town budget, its charter
and government structure, its interaction with zoning the board of county commissioners,
infrastructure and service provision and other details.

were plenty of questions presented, and among the answers is that a town would
consider a plan to supplement the sheriff ’s patrol budget so that it could
have more frequent patrols. It also noted that the county commission would not
have to approve incorporation, but the state legislature would, and it would
need to be approved in a referendum of the registered voters on St. George Island.

The current timeline is to present incorporation
legislation to the Florida legislature in January or February of 2022, and to
schedule a citizen referendum on incorporation for May 2022.

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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