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CRA eyes update of plans

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By Pat Hibbs

At the Williston's Community Redevelopment Agency's last meeting of the year, members dealt with long-term plans and shorter-term concerns.

At the urging of David Connolly, Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council principal planner, CRA members spent considerable time Dec. 10 considering modifications to the plan that had been developed when the agency was formed in 2002.

That plan, accepted by the City Council when presented, specified eight categories of public improvement projects for the city, including improvements to the gateway, the Linear Park, Noble Avenue and the main commercial district. It also dealt with construction of a new City Hall and post office, recommended structures for acquisition and demolition and called for a re-alignment of Main Street.

Connolly, who has recently been assigned to the CRA as its WRPC representative, suggested that the plan needed to be brought up to date to reflect what has been accomplished and changing priorities engendered by the circumstances of the past five years. (For example, the plan recommends acquiring the Thomas property, now the site of the growing Walgreens in the town's center.) In addition, specific elements of each project (decorative lighting and waste receptacles for Linear Park, for example) had been specified, with costs as of 2002, included. Costs for near-term plans need to be updated.

Connolly presented an outline of a method for revising the plan annually and suggested that the first effort could be completed in four to six months, thus being available when the city's budgeting process begins.

Members discussed the expansion of the CRA district that had been proposed to the City Council some months ago. At that point, a consensus had been reached on the boundaries of the district, but the council had decided to table the matter in light of the continuing property tax negotiations in Tallahassee. No further action has been taken.

Aesthetic standards for new commercial buildings and for significant alterations to other buildings in the central business district have also been a subject of great concern for the CRA. Members agree that the character of the town should be maintained, but also admit that Williston's "character" is difficult to define. There is no single architectural style, as in historic districts in other towns, for example, and members agree that the mixture of styles contributes to the city's eclectic charm.

The feeling is, though, that establishment of minimal architectural guidelines would encourage independent developers and larger "big box" retailers, like Walgreens, to make a concerted effort to build in a way that would enhance the atmosphere of the community.

The scope of those guidelines and how to publicize and enforce them, was the subject of a lengthy discussion. The question arose, too, of how to define a "significant" alteration to an existing structure, and several yardsticks were proposed. Chairman Ken Schwiebert said that such guidelines should not put impediments into the way of reasonable development. CRA members agreed.

Connolly will undertake an initial effort at the revisions and present an update of his efforts to the CRA at its next meeting on Jan. 14.

Jessica Throckmorton described the success of the annual chili cook-off, which was, this year, held in conjunction with the Light Up Williston festivities. She said that more than 200 cans of non-perishables had been donated, as had more than $100. The proceeds will benefit local food banks.

Vice-chair Nick Williams' suggestion of new signage for parking lots in the central business district was discussed further. Williams had pointed out that the lot behind Hunter's Realty on Southwest First Street is designated as "Municipal Parking," possibly suggesting that the spaces are for city vehicles only. "Public Parking" signs, he said, would make clearer the purpose of the lot. He'd also addressed the lot on the west side of the Library on Noble Avenue, which is not properly striped or identified as available to the public.

Parking for downtown businesses has been problematic, as the Florida Department of Transportation has eliminated on-street parking at the major intersection of town. While the proposed alterations on the first block of Linear Park will answer some of those concerns, Williams' suggestions would provide an immediate short-term solution.

Williams said that he would contact city officials to try to move the project along.

Peter Zettler, president of the Friends of the Williston Public Library, petitioned the CRA for funds to erect awnings at the two entrances to the building on Southeast First Street.

Zettler emphasized that he was speaking as a private citizen, not as a spokesman for the Friends group, which has no jurisdiction over the property.

He'd presented the idea to the City Council at its last meeting, and there the suggestion was made that he contact the CRA, as the city, which owns the building, had not budgeted the improvements.

The council had also suggested that metal awnings would be more practical, though the proposal is for canvas. CRA members agreed that the distinguished building, which was donated to the city by Perkins State Bank, needed the awnings; they also agreed with Zettler that canvas would be more pleasing aesthetically.

The question arose, however, of whether the CRA can participate in the improvement of a city-owned building. Nan Mack, the CRA's representative of city attorney Norm Fugate, said that she would explore that situation.

Zettler also suggested that the library be included on the CRA's about-to-be-revised list of projects; that too is subject to a legal opinion. He went on to say that the library's faade, some of which is marble, is in need of maintenance, and suggested that the CRA might fund that as well. He said, and CRA members agreed, that the library is a crucial element in the downtown area.

Schwiebert pointed out, however, that the aim of the CRA is redevelopment of the city, in particular the central business district, and that the emphasis is on economic redevelopment. He said that he wasn't sure that any extensive renovations to the library fit into the CRA's charter.

Williams suggested that, while the legal question is settled, Zettler prepare a list of improvements and repairs requested at the library for further consideration.

The CRA will next meet on Jan. 14, at 5:15 in the City Council chambers. Public participation is encouraged.