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Warner Robins' annexation fixation: City has doubled in size since 1994

WARNER ROBINS -- The sprawling peach orchards owned by the Bateman family for generations in eastern Peach County are destined to be covered in pavement, apartments and retail stores.

Oliver Bateman, 32, remembers the day four years ago when the city of Warner Robins annexed 703 acres of his family’s land off U.S. 41. The sale is another chapter in the story of Warner Robins’ explosive growth over the past decade and a half.

Soon after the annexation, the Bateman family sold all but 260 acres to developers who plan to build apartments, a retirement community and at least one major retailer.

“It was a win-win for everyone,” said Bateman, whose family sold the property for $8.5 million in 2007, according to county records.

“We were real proud that (the city) would have us,” said Bateman, who credits the perks that come with annexation — enhanced fire and police protection as well as city water and sewer services — in helping sell the property.

When Warner Robins annexed the Bateman land in 2005, that deal accounted for nearly a third of the 2,459 total acres the city claimed that year, the most successful in Warner Robins’ 15-year push to expand the city limits.

But with a sour economy, the city’s annexation efforts have slowed to a crawl. In 2008, Warner Robins claimed a little more than 77 acres into its city limits and so far in 2009 has annexed just one acre.

Annexation proponents point to the services cities can provide that otherwise may not be available to those without a city address.

But not everyone is thrilled with Warner Robins’ aggressive annexation efforts.

Jan Smalley has lived in Bonaire since 1977 and has witnessed the urbanization of the once-bucolic area.

Smalley fears annexation will take away her rural neighborhood and replace it with more people and a greater number of businesses and houses. That, she said, means more traffic congestion.

“The city won’t provide us with any more services that we don’t already have, and we’ll pay more taxes,” said Smalley, who doesn’t want to trade a septic tank for city sewer service.

But living next to the future site of Veterans High School, she’s nearly certain her land will be pulled into the city limits.

“They’re going to try and take it, and they will succeed,” Smalley said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

PROPONENTS SING ANNEXATION PRAISES

@MA BodyRR:Mayor Donald Walker, the central figure at the heart of the city’s annexation efforts, knows a thing or two about annexation.

Since he took office in 1994, the city has annexed more than 10,993 acres — roughly 17 square miles — that doubled the city’s geographic footprint.

Walker insists annexation is key to the city’s survival.

“A city must have elasticity to grow,” he said.

In the years Walker has been at the city’s helm, Warner Robins has grown to include more and more land in Houston and Peach counties. A 2006 report by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs shows Warner Robins behind only Savannah in annexation growth between 2000 and 2005.

The expansions have generated more tax revenue for the city while also creating more opportunities for business growth and education opportunities, Walker said.

Walker said it’s no secret why Warner Robins has found such success with its annexation efforts: It provides the services people want.

“You can’t have growth without wastewater (service),” Walker said.

With property owners being required to own at least an acre to have a septic tank, Walker said the city’s sewer service is becoming more appealing for developers. And, he points out, most businesses can’t operate without sewer service as more stringent environmental regulations are put into place.

Morgan Law, executive director of the Houston County Development Authority, said the additional oversight from environmental agencies has made the city’s services more appealing, particularly to new and expanding industries.

More than 10 years ago, the officials behind a power plant built next to the Frito-Lay factory in Kathleen asked the city for natural gas and sewer services.

Natural gas sales at the power plant bring $1 million each year into the city. In addition, Warner Robins receives about $100,000 annually to treat wastewater from the plant, officials said.

The businesses reap more benefits.

A city address, which also offers the city’s fire and police protection, appeals to those industries, which in turn bring more residents, Law said. And more people leads to business growth across all sectors, from restaurants to retail chains, Law said.

He points to the explosion of business growth along Russell Parkway and Watson Boulevard.

“It just keeps feeding itself,” Law said of the cycle.

Terry Horton, a city councilman since October 1993, credits timing for the city’s ability to expand its borders.

At the time he took office, Horton recalled, the area was ripe with growth and development. The crime rate was low. Taxes were relatively low and on the verge of dropping lower. The highly regarded Houston County school system was drawing numerous families to the area.

But even with all those building blocks in place, the rapid growth caught Horton by surprise.

“I never dreamed we would have the type of growth we have in Warner Robins and Houston County,” he said.

The Warner Robins population, which was 43,726 in the 1990 U.S. census, increased to 48,804 a decade later in 2000. The estimated census count at the end of 2007 was 60,392, an increase of 24 percent since 2000.

The biggest factor in Warner Robins’ growth explosion has been Robins Air Force Base, said base historian Bill Head.

The base’s growth, he noted, is symbiotic with the city’s growth because the base employs much of the city’s work force.

Head said the city and base often work together for better results. For instance, Houston Medical Center provides health care to base employees, while the base has worked to get more small businesses involved with the base and city.

Head also said that with annexations come more housing developments and more services to offer employees moving to the area to work on the base.

“The better off Robins is, the better off the city is,” he said. “The better off the city is, the better off Robins is.”

NOT EVERYONE EMBRACING CITY’S SPRAWL

@MA BodyRR:Still, annexation has its critics.

Jim Elliott, Warner Robins’ longtime city attorney who left City Hall late last year to go into private practice, gained on-the-job expertise in annexation law and saw firsthand how volatile the issue can be.

Elliott has been on the annexation roller-coaster for most of the time Walker has been in office. While the majority of the city’s annexation efforts are requested by property owners, Elliott has found himself in litigation a few times with residents and other cities.

“There have been instances where people have gotten really angry,” Elliott said.

In 1995, Centerville and Warner Robins battled in court over which Houston County city would annex Eagle Springs, a large and tax-rich subdivision then under construction.

The property became part of Centerville, but only after mediation that spelled out boundaries for Centerville’s future growth options.

In 1997, Warner Robins sued Centerville over those boundaries, and the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the International City. That ruling, in effect, landlocked Centerville.

Said Elliott: “It’s fairly common for cities to battle over turf.”

Later that year, residents from four subdivisions in the Feagin Mill Road area sued Warner Robins after their neighborhoods were targeted for annexation.

Residents in Providence Park, Settler’s Landing, Country Walk and Eagle’s Bluff formed the Coalition Against Annexation.

At the core of residents’ concerns was that the subdivisions’ developers had entered into covenants that allowed the developments to be annexed into the city once they became contiguous. Residents protested that they were unaware of the agreement before buying their property. However, Warner Robins came out on top once again.

While the city uses police and fire protection as incentives for annexation, Warner Robins officials say those services come with a cost to the city. When Walker first took office, the police department’s budget stood at $3.2 million, but with growth, the fiscal 2009 departmental budget is $13.3 million. Similarly, the fire department’s budget swelled from $2.8 million 15 years ago to $9 million now.

The Walker administration has overseen the addition of two fire stations, and the police force has grown from 115 to 160 employees.

Walker says the city adequately serves all its residents, even ones who don’t live near the city’s core.

But William Hrizuk, a member of the Coalition Against Annexation in 1997, begs to differ.

He and about 60 other families fought annexation of his Settler’s Landing subdivision because he didn’t see the additional services the city would provide.

He and other residents were promised additional fire and police protection. Though a new fire station at Lake Joy and Feagin Mill roads opened in 2007, Hrizuk maintains that police protection isn’t on par with the part of the city closer to City Hall.

“We got higher taxes with little or no improvement in services,” he said.

Controversy over annexations has continued in recent years, sometimes from outside Houston County.

Peach County Commissioner Walter Smith has voted against every effort by Warner Robins to annex Peach County land. Sometimes he is the sole opposing vote.

Smith said he fought Warner Robins’ first move into Peach County — in which the city claimed a Pilot gas station at Interstate 75 and the Ga. 247 Connector and nearby land — because he didn’t want the city crossing county lines.

Smith has pledged to oppose every move Warner Robins makes into Peach County, because it takes sales tax dollars and hotel-motel tax money away from the county.

“I wasn’t trying to stop economic growth,” he said. “I wanted the economic growth to take place within the cities of Peach County.”

Elliott looks back on those issues as some of the most tense and controversial in the city’s annexation quest.

Each controversy made him more knowledgeable, he said, and allowed him to give lectures on the topic of annexation to law classes and the Georgia Municipal Association.

“We’ve just about seen it all,” Elliott said. “I have friends that say that Macon has the Cherry Blossom Festival (and) Forsyth has the Forsythia Festival. Warner Robins should have an Annexation Festival.”

WALKER SAYS ANNEXATION, EDUCATION LINKED

@MA BodyRR:Walker is among the first to say that industries are attracted to cities with an educated work force and that many of Warner Robins’ annexation efforts are tied to education.

Houston County schools Superintendent David Carpenter was principal at Eagle Springs Elementary when the school debuted in 1999. The city worked feverishly to lay a sewer line for the school, which eventually led to its annexation.

Carpenter said he’s well aware of the impact that bringing the wastewater system to an area has on future development.

“Where we build schools, people build up around them,” Carpenter said.

Now, Carpenter is working with the city to extend sewer and gas lines to the new Veterans High School off Piney Grove Road, which is slated to open in the 2010-2011 school year. In October, the City Council passed a resolution calling for the city to provide the labor and the Houston County school board to pay for the gas and sewer lines.

Once the gas and sewer lines are in place, Carpenter said, the city would have an avenue to annex the property.

“If the city wants to annex us, we would not be opposed to it,” Carpenter said.

Walker is quick to point out that quality schools, including higher education offerings, lead to more people moving to the city.

One of his proudest moments as mayor was attracting Macon State College’s Warner Robins campus to a spot near City Hall in 2003. At one time, the school was located off Osigian Boulevard and had little room for expansion.

However, the City Council donated the former Charles Thomas Elementary School, which the city bought from the school system.

Walker also noted the expansion of Georgia Military College’s Warner Robins campus and its move from the base to space off North Davis Drive in Village at Town Centre, the city’s commercial park.

The city agreed to use up to $60,000 over five years to subsidize the school’s rent, which was paid to the city’s Downtown Development Authority. The city also paid $60,000 to buy two lots for parking at the college and $50,000 to equip the buildings for computers.

Walker said he’s proud of the relationship the city forged with the college, which has included the school giving free tuition to up to 15 city employees each year.

More than 2,000 people attend school within two blocks of City Hall every weekday, Walker said, and annexation is part of the reason why.

It has, in Walker’s estimation, increased the number of upwardly mobile people living in the city limits and has brought more revenue to the city.

“It’s a tool to recapture people,” he said. “It sends resources to your less-blessed people.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

@MA BodyRR:Although annexation in Warner Robins has slowed recently, the city shows no signs of stopping.

The city still has room to grow in almost any direction, said Walker, who adds that he’s ready to hear anyone’s appeal to be part of the city.

“I will support them,” he said. “I will encourage them.”

The city already is making plans for the future. Walker made upgrades to a wastewater treatment plan a top priority on a list of projects the city submitted for funding from President Obama’s economic stimulus package. The city requested more than $5 million for the project, but Walker said it must be done — regardless of whether federal money is secured — as Warner Robins aims to attract more residents and businesses.

Walker also is counting on the Georgia-Robins Aerospace Maintenance Partnership, or G-RAMP, to generate much of that growth. It’s so important, Walker said, that it accounts for $72 million of the $217 million requested from the stimulus package.

The project calls for the private funding of aircraft maintenance hangars, maintenance ramps and a taxiway connection to the base on an adjacent 544 acres of land owned by the city.

G-RAMP is expected to bring 4,400 jobs to Warner Robins, Walker said.

“These people are going to have to live somewhere,” he said.

To contact writer Natasha Smith, call 923-6199, extension 236.

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