Wednesday, January 09, 2008

TOP STORY>>Gravel Ridge would rather be left alone than annexed

Leader Staff Writer

About 300 older, mostly white residents crowded into the gym at First Baptist Church of Gravel Ridge and most frequently hollered “Amen” or applauded when anyone shouted out, “Leave us alone,” or “We don’t want to be annexed.”

Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim called for the Monday night meeting to explain to Gravel Ridge residents why being annexed by Jakcsonville was a good deal. Most were not in a listening mood. The mayor, who had spent most of the weekend sick in bed, had a very crackly voice that only cracked more as the meeting dragged on.

He opened with about a 20-minute explanation, referencing his handout of most-asked questions, and explaining the voting process and then opened the session up to questions. He got a lot of questions about whether the 2,500-acre community of 3,500 people had any other options and comments like “We’re screwed” and “Go home.”

The mayor has another meeting set for 6 p.m. Monday at the Jacksonville Community Center.

Sherwood also wants to annex the area and Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman has scheduled a meeting for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 21 at the same church to explain why Sherwood is the best city to be a part of.

Jacksonville and Gravel Ridge residents will vote on the annexation question Feb. 5.

Sherwood and Gravel Ridge residents will vote on Sherwood’s annexation efforts March 11.

If both elections end up in yes votes, meaning both cities annexed Gravel Ridge, then a third election will be held April 1 for just the Gravel Ridge residents to decide whether they’ll become part of Jacksonville or Sherwood.

“Why can’t there be a place for us to vote ‘leave us the way we are?’” asked a woman in the audience.

The mayor said he understood her sentiment, but state law dictates the choices.

After the mayor explained that even though property taxes are higher in Jacksonville, Gravel Ridge residents would recoup that money because of the city’s lower sanitation fees, area resident Bob Nichols shouted out to cheers, “But that won’t get us our freedom back.”

Nichols bought his Gravel Ridge home back in 1987. “I had choices as to where to buy my home just like all of us here. I choose Gravel Ridge for a reason,” he said.

Nichols was not happy about the community being gobbled up by Jacksonville or Sherwood. “I’m not happy with the choices, but if I had to choose I’d pick Sherwood.”

Sandi Griffin, who lives on Hatcher Road, felt that Jacksonville had done more for Gravel Ridge over the years. “I can’t think of one thing Sherwood has done for us,” she said.

Developer Greg Heslep, who along with three other landowners, petitioned to annex 2,000 acres of undeveloped land into Sherwood, spoke ill of the services provided by Jacksonville.

But the Jacksonville Planning Commission, a few years ago, put more demands on his Base Meadows Subdivision than he wanted and he and the city have knocked heads for quite a while.

He accused the city of not provided police protection for his subdivision, off Highway 107 and General Samuels, which was annexed by Jacksonville when it was built.

He also said that the city administrator Jay Whisker had not been helpful in solving Heslep’s complaints and concerns.
One of the first questions asked the mayor was: “Why now?”

Swaim explained that the city had been looking at annexing Gravel Ridge since 1976. “We didn’t have the money to provide the services then, but we do now,” he said.

In response to another question about the city only wanting the area’s tax base, the mayor explained that neither Jacksonville nor Sherwood would receive any county or state turnback money from the area for at least five years.

“We have to wait until the 2010 census verifies our population, and then we would need a special election before that money would come to us. In the meantime, the county would continue to collect and use that tax money,” the mayor said.

Swaim said whichever city gets Gravel Ridge has to be prepared to spend the money to provide services.

“We are prepared,” he said. “We are interested in taking in everyone in Gravel Ridge, not just the businesses.”

Most of the people just wanted to know how the community could remain as it is—separate from both cities.

The mayor explained that if the Jacksonville vote is no and the Sherwood vote is no, then Gravel Ridge would remain separate.

“All you have to do is convince the people of Jacksonville and Sherwood to vote no,” the mayor said. “This may not be what some of you want to hear. I’m sorry.”

The mayor said he was going to do what he could to have the area annexed into Jacksonville, “but whatever city you get into it’s a good city,” he said.

Besides the mayor, most of the Jacksonville City Council and department heads attended the meeting, along with Mayor Hillman and two Sherwood aldermen.

As the meeting ended, most residents filed out grumbling, unhappy with the choices and planning to come back to the Sherwood annexation meeting Jan. 21.

“It’s going to be an interesting next couple of months,” Hillman said after the meeting.