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A rock and a hard place



The pamphlet Gregory Reddish received last March had to have been a joke. "Welcome to Orlando," it read.

Reddish, a dentist who owns his Michigan Street office, tossed the letter out. But weeks later, more city information appeared in his mail.

Reddish soon discovered that his business had been annexed into Orlando without his consent.

He wasn't the only one. Forty-seven other property owners had been included in the same annexation grab -- property owners who never consented and were not notified in advance that they would now be paying taxes to Orlando city government.

But Reddish and some of the property owners are fighting back. They've filed a de-annexation petition, which the City Council could hear as soon as Feb. 25.

"Not only do I not want to be in the city for various reasons," Reddish says, "but everyone I know has a horror story about Orlando government. ... The city bureaucracy is a nightmare to deal with."

The Michigan Street businesses, which lie to the east and west of Fern Creek Avenue, were annexed under an obscure law that enabled the city to expand its borders without the consent of the businesses.

Here's how: Orange County Public Schools previously had acquired 82 parcels of land for the expansion of Boone High School. When the district asked the city to annex that land, the city was happy to oblige. At the same time, the city discovered that -- under a poorly worded state annexation law -- it could grab a few additional pieces of adjacent land so long as the number of extra parcels was fewer than those owned by the school district.

How could the adjacent landowners not know what was happening to them? Again, thank the state law, which permits such non-voluntary annexations so long as the landowners are not registered to vote at the annexed address. (None of the Michigan Street business owners live on their property.)

Thus, along with the 82 school parcels, the city found an adjacent 77 business properties that met both criteria and took them over as well. The city wasn't obliged to hold a referendum. Neither was it obligated to notify the businesses they were being annexed, except to run an announcement in a newspaper for two consecutive weeks.

The city has since changed that policy -- even though state law has not changed -- mainly because of fallout along Michigan Street. "We have not been doing this very long," says Tanja Gerhartz, director of the city's economic-development department. "I think we've learned that we need to do public notices. We need to treat an annexation like a rezoning issue."

Gerhartz says that contrary to perception, the city's chief administrative officer, Richard Levey, was not to blame for the Michigan Street annexation. Rather, Gerhartz takes the blame, though she says her office was following procedures outlined by the city attorney's office. "I have apologized, I will apologize," Gerhartz says. "I will lay down on Michigan Avenue and let them run over me. They can take it out on me if it makes them feel better about this."

The Michigan Street businesses had an unlikely ally when filing their de-annexation petition in October. The Orange County Commission -- in a precedent-setting move -- voted to give the group $1,500 to cover the cost of the de-annexation filing fee, presumably to keep the businesses paying their taxes to Orange County.

"We've never done that before," says the county's District 4 commissioner, Clarence Hoenstine. "But because of the circumstances, we felt we needed to."

Hoenstine says Orlando officials would never have been able to annex the businesses if the county had rezoned the school district's 82 parcels into one giant piece of land. "It's all about boundaries and property," says Hoenstine. "It's not about people. There's some greed in that, I hate to say."

Unfortunately for Michigan Street businesses, the city still holds the advantage. According to state law, a municipality can reject the de-annexation petition as long as it provides reasons for doing so.

In fact, city leaders were prepared to dismiss the petition at the Feb. 11 council meeting. The city's reasoning is economical as well as practical. According to a city analysis, the city spends more than $148,000 subsidizing Orange County residents with services provided by city Fire Station No. 5. Gerhartz says the city is simply attempting to even out its boundaries; Michigan Street is home to a pocket of county property surrounded by the city on three sides.

But District 1 City Commissioner Don Ammerman pulled that item from the Feb. 11 agenda. He says that, while he favors the annexation, he wanted to ensure that the Michigan Street owners had a fair hearing. "Technically, right now, the people who want to de-annex are constituents of mine," Ammerman says. "I should not be adversarial. I should provide service to them, whatever the reason is."

How sympathetic city leaders will be remains to be seen. They've already tried working with Michigan Street landowners by moving transit stops, adding bus-stop benches and sewer lines, even putting up Christmas decorations.

Michigan Street businesses, however, remain unimpressed.

"I'm just embarrassed by the way the city handled it," says Richard McMillin, an Orlando resident who owns a construction business on Michigan Street. "The city needs to get its act cleaned up and treat people on a fair basis."


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