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HIGH SPRINGS – The High Springs to Newberry Rail Corridor was once again under discussion as the High Springs City Commission and the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners discussed the project on April 8 at a joint meeting. The corridor was originally considered by the County commission several years ago. However, the County did not reach an agreement with CSX, the corridor’s previous owner.

According to the County’s Transportation Planning Manager Chris Dawson, CSX consummated a Trail Use Agreement with Georgetown and High Line Railway (GHL). Dawson said attempts to contact GHL have not been successful.

High Springs Parks and Recreation Director Damon Messina asked the County for help in revisiting the project. Should the trail be completed, it would join Newberry on one end and connect to the Santa Fe River on the other end.

The County Commission voted unanimously to have staff work with High Springs and Newberry to determine if grant funding can be found to pay for the purchase of the corridor, if it becomes available.

One of the funding mechanisms to help purchase the corridor was Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) funds. Those funds have since been allocated throughout the County for a variety of projects. However, High Springs would like to have the WSPP program extended and realize it wouldn’t be until 2024 before those funds, if available, could be allocated to this project.

County Commission Chair Ken Cornell said that a strategic plan was held in early March. At that time a number of County and small city needs were discussed. One need was for affordable housing. Another was infrastructure such as roads, and a third was to extend the WSPP structure. “We have asked staff to see if citizens would be in favor of a one cent infrastructure tax which would provide some funding for WSPP, which could lead to some future funding and grants,” said Cornell.

Regarding the extension of, concern was expressed about extending the WSPP issue to a one cent amount and using the funds for more than just the one issue of recreation.

“It was clear as to how the funds would be used when the citizens approved the WSPP tax,” said City Commissioner Ross Ambrose. He expressed concern that there could be voter backlash if there isn’t a level of transparency. He said there may be confusion on the part of the voters if the funds are to be used for a number of different projects. “It could be detrimental.”

Although the issue was discussed, no action was taken at this meeting.

Priest Theater

High Springs City Manager Stathatos addressed the issue of the Priest Theater. She said the City was still in the due diligence phase of looking into this, but asked if the County would consider advancing Community Redevelopment dollars as an early loan.

The City is in the process of obtaining an appraisal but the asking price is $390,000. “With a 10-year repayment to the County of $39,000, the County’s CRA obligation to High Springs would be reduced to approximately $51,700 in fiscal year 20-21, using FY20-21 Ad Valorem contributions as a baseline.”

While County Commission members seemed supportive of historic preservation of the building, some had questions about intended use. City Manager Stathatos said one thought was to establish a partnership with a developer where the City would specify allowed use. Another idea was to send out a request for proposals to see what people involved in the arts or other areas might suggest. Establishing a committee to help determine a plan for use and to help obtain funding is another option. However, Stathatos said she wanted to see if the County would be interested in advancing CRA funds to purchase the property and reducing the amount of CRA funds it sends to High Springs each year.

Cornell asked that the City return in 60 days with a plan after the committee has met and established a use and any other funding options to help with the purchase.

Fellowship Church Purchase

The County has an option for 60 days to purchase Fellowship Church on U.S. Highway 441 in High Springs. The church grounds consist of 9.682 acres and the asking price is $3.3 million

The County needed the 60 days to obtain a survey and do due diligence on the purchase.

Should the County decide to purchase the property, it is considering using it as a center for facilities to serve the people of High Springs, Alachua and Newberry with medical and other services. Transportation to Gainesville for medical services has proven difficult for some residents without reliable transportation. It is hoped that this facility will minimize transportation issues for people seeking medical and related services.

Emergency Services Radio System

Another item discussed was a trunk radio system for all of the County’s emergency services. Alachua County Fire Chief Harold Theus addressed this item and explained that the 20 year contract with GRU.Com for radio services expired September 30 of last year. Attempted negotiations have failed. Based on Florida Statutes Chapter 164 that deals with intergovernmental conflict, a resolution needs to be determined so the County can negotiate with GRU.com.

Based on the County Commission’s direction, Theus said they were also looking at a county-wide communications system which would be administered by the County. The current estimate to set that up would be approximately $14 million. As this was primarily a status report, no decision was made on this issue.

Housing

Missy Daniels from County Growth Management addressed the issue of a residential rental unit permit and inspection program. Daniels explained that the City of Gainesville has enacted such an ordinance and is contracting with a company out of Miami which proposes using University of Florida Engineering students.

Should the County administer this program in-house, Daniels said they would need to hire four more codes officers and one licensing clerk/staff assistant. The cost the first year is estimated to be $454,000 and ongoing, the cost is estimated to be $345,000 annually.

Based on a survey the County did on non-homestead exempted properties in High Springs, Daniels estimated that the City has eight duplexes, three triplex or quads and 574 single-family united without Homestead exemptions. She pointed out that it is unlikely that all of these are rentals but she presented the numbers to give the City someplace to start on the number of possible rentals in High Springs.

Although City Commissioners are generally in favor of standards for rental properties, some expressed concern about how much it would cost the City, whether permit funds would go to the individual cities to offset costs, how to deal with historic homes and ways in which the City might be able to resolve issues between their citizens and the County should the need arise.

Currently, the County is attempting to determine the interest level of all of the cities in the county and will eventually present an ordinance for consideration.

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