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Cape battles for parity at state level

By Staff | Feb 12, 2016

Water quality is not the only issue Cape Coral is addressing at the state level.

Cape Coral Councilmember Jim Burch has made it his mission to see that, as a pre-platted community, Cape Coral and other communities like it obtain the help they need in footing the bill to sustain a rapid growth rate.

Burch also is continuing the fight to stave off an attempt by utilities companies to force cities and counties to pay the cost for relocating public utilities in the public right-of-way, as in the case of road widening projects.

Utilities lobbyists are back again this legislative session for another crack at shifting the burden to governmental agencies.

“We are going to lose this time,” said Burch. “I don’t think we have the votes to stop it, and pre-platted cities will be hurt by it the most. I see the vote coming in the next two or three weeks, but before March 11 when the session ends.”

Utilities still have to pay to relocate lines in the public right-of-way for transportation and non-transportation projects, Burch explained. But if utilities are outside the ROW and a roadway is widened to then require relocation, cities and counties must pay the cost.

“I think utilities will try to go back and get the rest of it at some point,” said Burch.

Infrastructure and keeping up with city services in high growth areas are the two main concerns for pre-platted communities like Cape Coral. Since 2003 the city, and Burch in particular, has taken a serious look at the situation. In the last two years, Burch has formed a coalition of six pre-platted communities representing a population of almost 700,000 residents. The other five are Deltona, North Port, Palm Bay, Palm Coast and Port St. Lucie.

“Those are the only pre-platted areas in Florida that are incorporated cities,” said Burch. “There are many others areas like Lehigh that are unincorporated, but the coalition gives us a bigger voice when we go to the legislature.”

Port St. Lucie has not formally join the coalition, Burch said, but they do participate and provide input on the issues. He believes the city eventually will join up.

Burch has presented material to about a dozen legislators in the past that outlines the problems these communities face and some solutions.

“I made the presentation to legislators who I thought would make solid allies,” Burch said. “We’re getting a healthy dose of respect and interest from it, but this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Besides, the state helped form these communities, so the state owns a piece of this problem, too. We’re making headway with the legislators with the help of House Rep. Dane Eagle, who is standing behind me all the way.”

He pointed out that pre-platted communities often have streets in poor conditions and the people who live in the more sparsely populated areas expect and need city services like anyone else, but there is no one to pay for it.

“Ultimately, what we need is a designated revenue stream from Tallahassee to pay for infrastructure, paving, repaving, water and sewer utilities,” said Burch. “That’s where our major costs are. We need the legislators to recognize what pre-platted cities’ needs are. We rely on property owners for everything, but we could never collect enough taxes to build out the rest of this city. In the end we have to reduce the tax burden on our individual residents.”

Cape Coral stands at about 86/14 residential to commercial property designation right now. That makes it difficult to make deals to create parcels for more commercial areas.

“We have to be careful because we’ve seen requests before council before where property owners get upset when you try to put multifamily or commercial right next to single family residential,” said Burch. “Cities will lose cases like that in court.”

As Burch already alluded to, convincing state legislators to come through with funds to help pre-platted communities will take time.

“There are things that take a lot of time and energy and work,” he said. “This is one of those. This is perhaps the biggest thing that could ever happen to Cape Coral.”