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Fight Over Expansion Of Welaunee Plantation Amps Up Ahead Of Final Vote

Welaunee
City of Tallahassee
A map of the current boundary areas in Welaunee and the area that would be brought within the Urban Services Area

The Leon County and City of Tallahassee Commissions appear poised to approve changes to a plan that clears the way for the development of an additional 2,800 acres of the Welaunee Plantation in northeast Tallahassee. Opposition to the project appears to be growing amid questions of why the city and county are trying to make changes in the midst of a pandemic which limits the ability for members of the public to share concerns with commissioners.

Plans to develop Welaunee have been in place since 1990, according to former city commissioner Debbie Lightsey. She should know. She was part of the group that oversaw the development of the city’s growth plan—also known as the comp plan.

“This whole Welaunee thing started back in 1990 when the annexation and the first urban services agreement. So it is an issue that’s got a long history," she explains.

The city made Welaunee part of itself by annexing it decades ago and including part of the property in the urban service area (USA). That boundary marks the place where development is expected and a local government is responsible for providing services like utilities, sewer and transit. A large chunk of the Welaunee property remains outside that boundary—proposed changes to the comp plan would expand the USA to include the 2,800 acres. But Lightsey says there’s no justification for the change, and calls the proposed expansion “unusual and premature.”

“They’ve been unable to provide any data analysis that says we have sufficient rapid population growth or that we’ve run out of developable land in the current USA. And those are the two principles on which these expansions are made," she says.

The property is owned by a single family and their attorney, Gary Hunter with the firm Hopping Green & Sams, says they have a right to decide how to use their land.

"I've seen lots of dialogue publically...to express this is some gift to a developer. This couldn't be further from the fact. We aren't developers and have no plans to develop."

Hunter says what's happening now is the result of a 1990 agreement between the family and the city that the city would provide urban services to the land "upon the request of my client."

"Dating back to 1990, within one year of a request, the city was responsible to provide urban services to any of that property once we lived up to our obligations under that agreement," he said during a Thursday virtual town hall hosted on Facebook by City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow.

Lightsey and others say there’s plenty of undeveloped land still available within the current boundaries and that the area’s population growth doesn’t show a need for the changes. Former Tallahassee Mayor Dot Inman-Johnson worries expanding the USA to encompass more of Welaunee will further drive economic segregation within the city.

"I have a real concern about developing properties in this county further in the Northeast before we've devoted resources to keep our promises to other parts of the community," she said during Matlow's town hall.

Inman-Johnson says part of the goal of the original comp plan was to promote growth in older communities and on the south side of Tallahassee.

Speaking during Thursday's town hall, Wayne Tedder, Assistant City Manager, says Tallahassee is constrained in many ways when it comes to how it grows and develops.

"In the south side, we've got Wakulla Springs protection policies in place...on the southwest corner we've got the national forest, and on the north side, we've got Lake Jackson."

The northeast corridor is among the fastest-growing in the city with rising property values driven by the desire of families to live closer to schools perceived as better.

Critics of the comp plan changes argue the upcoming hearing should be put on hold until the public can speak in person. Lightsey wonders what the rush is.

"You’ve got a unique situation where one family owns a big block of property and its every planner’s dream. They don’t have to try and tie together a bunch of things," says County Commission Chairman Brian Desloge. He recently called for the vote that set up the meeting on the 26th.

That vote reversed an earlier decision by the commission to hold off on any large-scale changes that required public input until that could be done in person. Desloge says at the time of the original vote, he didn’t realize exactly what it meant.

“It was a long meeting and most of us were exhausted and it sounded like a good idea…until we realized—I did at least—that we’ve been working on this, for not just a year or two, but 30 years…and everyone had been on board.”

Desloge is also asking the question of why now? He notes the proposals have been on the table since October and signs posted about public hearings.

“The citizens' groups, the local planning groups that look at these are fine with it. No one had any huge blowback, and now in the ninth hour it comes out ‘well, wait a minute, you’re trying to run this through in the dark of night’, and that’s just not true.”

Critics contend they’ve been raising red flags for months. Desloge says eventually more of Welaunee will be developed, though not for at least another 10 to 15 years. He sees the comp plan changes as the opportunity for the city and county to control how the area grows, instead of leaving it up to developers, who may, or may not share the same growth vision.

“This is the best of all worlds. We get a chance to master plan it," he says.

"People claim this is sprawl, this is more unneeded development-- there’s need for the development, there’s a call for the development. It’s in the right area. It’s in the city limits, the infrastructure is all associated with it there, it checks all the boxes from a planning standpoint.”

Voting in favor of holding the May 26th hearing were county Commissioners Mary Ann Lindley, Jimbo Jackson, Brian Desloge and Nick Maddox. Those against: Kristin Dozier, Bill Proctor and Rick Minor. The 26th hearing marks the final one for the changes.