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New City Hall plan moves to next step

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By Pat Hibbs

The face of downtown Williston may soon change more dramatically than it has in recent months.

Walgreens will open in the spring, of course, and the new Williston Business Plaza on South Main Street is already full. Work will soon begin on the block of Linear Park in front of City Hall - which may not be city hall for very long.

At its Tuesday night meeting, the city council directed City Manager Jim Coleman to begin formal negotiations to purchase the building that was the temporary home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (and, before that, the Brass Lantern) before its new facility was built.

The council and other interested parties visited the building in mid-July. Its location at the end of the Linear Park satisfies the council's wishes to keep the city's administrative offices in a spot convenient for the city's residents. The building contains more than 6,000 square feet; the space that was presumably its sanctuary is ideal for a city council room. The building also contains spaces that would be appropriate for offices and customer service areas.

One problem has to do with a portion of the parking lot to the north of the building that the city feels is necessary to successful operation, but that the owners want to retain for use with its new building.

Since the July walk-through, the subject has been raised several times at council meetings, especially centered on what to do with the current city hall facility. Coleman said on Tuesday that he has had three expressions of interest in the current site. Council president Debra Jones said that, even as a vacant commercial site, the city hall property would sell "in a heartbeat."

Cookie King, the Realtor handling the proposed sale, recommended to council that, if the city is serious about the purchase of the LDS property, it submit a letter of intent to church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Mayor Gerald Hethcoat expressed his opinion that "we need to move forward," and retiring councilman Jerry Robinson posed the crucial question, "Do we want to make an offer?" The sense of the council was that it is time to make a decision, and that decision was to proceed with negotiations.

The council leaned initially to establishing a three-person committee to conduct negotiations, but councilman Cal Byrd expressed concern that such a committee would run into difficulties with the Sunshine Law, and city attorney Norm Fugate recommended that one person be designated to head up the talks. Council voted 4-1 to direct Coleman to fulfill that role; Jones dissented, preferring to have a council member as the point man.

Before the formal business of the council began, Jones welcomed the three candidates for city council in the election in early March. Brooks Holloway, Lindsey Hager and Bill Shoemaker acknowledged Jones' welcome and paid close attention throughout the long meeting.

Surveyor Steve McMillen, representing the Church of God, argued for the closing of platted, though not necessarily constructed, streets in the Hill Crest area, just south of Klover Leaf Tack and the new extension of North Florida Mini-Storage, with frontage on U.S. 41. The church has purchased the almost four acres of land for its new facility and is trying to resolve issues of ingress and egress with adjoining properties. Council agreed to cede the interior streets to the church.

Council passed, on its first reading, Ordinance 581, allowing the use of cameras to detect those who run red lights at intersections in the city. The ordinance is required before TraffiPax, the company proposing the system, will conduct its feasibility study. The city attorney reiterated his warning that the practice has not been legally tested in Florida, although it is in use in several cities. Councilmen Jake Cason and Jerry Robinson dissented. Legislation is to be considered in the Florida Legislature's 2008 session specifically allowing this type of traffic enforcement.

Council agreed to sign a promissory note with Perkins State Bank in the amount of $69,400 for the purchase of a new pumper truck, which is due to be delivered within the month.

The question of providing electric service to businesses at the Airport Industrial Park engendered much discussion among council members. Council had earlier directed Coleman to inform Central Florida Electric Cooperative that it would not renew its franchise agreement for service to businesses at the airport. That agreement provided the city a six-percent franchise fee, but it will expire on March 1.

Council members questioned whether the city's electric utility has the capacity to provide power to the businesses at the airport. Public Works Director James Arrington replied that the generating capacity is sufficient, but the delivery systems (e.g., poles) are not in place and, when this subject was last considered, the cost of providing the infrastructure was considered prohibitive. Councilman Cal Byrd suggested that the city restrict the area at the Industrial Park in which CFEC may operate and, as new businesses are built, provide service from the city facilities.

Coleman urged that council confront the immediate problem. He suggested that the CFEC franchise be continued, and he and attorney Fugate proposed that the city pursue either a short-term agreement at a relatively low franchise fee as it determines CFEC's boundaries, or a longer-term agreement with a higher franchise fee. Some debate ensued over a local ordinance setting the fee at 13 percent and a state regulation limiting it to 10 percent.

City employee Buster Barley rose in support of expanding the city's operations in the area of the airport, suggesting that the city needed to expand its reach in order to increase its revenues.

When the discussion ended, Coleman and Fugate were asked to research the options and make recommendations to council.

Council president Jones, who is also chair of the Airport Committee, summarized that body's deliberations at its Monday night meeting.

She said that the committee was leaning toward granting the Levy County Fair Association's request for use of the same facilities in 2008, but emphasized that this arrangement is for one year only, and prohibits any permanent structures. She added that the Association will present a financial report to the council next month.

The council authorized the purchase of a new beacon light for the airport. The current one works only sporadically and Arrington said that it needed to be replaced. The committee had recommended a 250-watt light from a firm it's accustomed to working with, but audience member Argy Hager noted that another firm had offered a 400-watt light for essentially the same price.

City manager Coleman was asked to negotiate with the preferred company for an upgraded light at the same price.

Police Chief Dan Davis introduced the subject of an Adult Enterprise Zone, a way to restrict adult-only businesses. Fugate said that there are two avenues to take: the first is zoning, and he said that the city cannot outright prohibit adult businesses and that using zoning laws can be tricky. He recommended instead using a plan that would require all employees of adult businesses to be licensed. He indicated that Levy County has such a plan in place and that municipalities can opt to be included in the county's system. He added that the city may want to assume the responsibility on its own, thus being able to exercise greater control.

Council also agreed to a proposal from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to place small signs throughout the city warning that "It's a drought. CONSERVE." SWFWMD will provide the signs at no cost.

City council meetings are held on alternate Tuesdays at 7 p.m. at the city council chambers. The agenda is available online (www.willistonfl.com) on the Friday before the meeting. Choose the city of Williston logo (the website is shared with the Chamber of Commerce) and click on Minutes and Agendas. A hard copy may be picked up at city hall