Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Part I:   Columbia County Econ Dev – Wanted – Public Tax Dollar Incentive for Private Condos

picture of hand with copy over it: "Columbia County Economic Development. Money wanted for upscale condo subdivision

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Wednesday's Economic Development Advisory Board meeting had a friend of Board Chairman and County Commissioner Tim Murphy looking for a fast track tax rebate incentive to build a private condos development with an average selling price of $175,750.


Through 2010, economic development was handled in Columbia County by the Industrial Development Authority (IDA). The main purpose of the IDA was to recruit industrial businesses (manufacturing – distribution (logistics)) to Columbia County which produced jobs. Two examples of this are Target Industries and New Millennium.

In and around that time an ill wind blew in Columbia County and the IDA was replaced by the Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB).

In 2011 a resolution of the County 5 (the county commission) established the EDAB and bylaws were approved.

An Economic Development Department was established and an economic development director was hired who was answerable directly to the county manager.

It was determined that Chairman of the EDAB would be appointed by the County Chair.

The EDAB is strictly advisory: it makes recommendations to the County 5, which gives the thumbs up, thumbs down, or sends it back for further action with its own recommendations.

The duties of the Chairperson were clearly spelled out: (1) preside at the meetings; (2) call meetings and follow the bylaws; (3) sign documents and correspondence approved by the EDAB.

The Economic Development Director is tasked with among other things meeting "with prospective clients who are considering locating in Columbia County."

The Private Condo Development: Townhome Development

Townhome rendering of condo units
The average price of each condo through the four phases of the project is estimated to be $175,750.

Townhome Development (the Project) was front and center at the Economic Development Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday morning. The information regarding the development was posted to the County website on September 26, giving the Board plenty of time to review the information and contact Economic Development Director Glenn Hunter with any questions.

Tim Williams of Seber Associates, Inc., made the presentation to the Board. He characterized himself as the "Developer, Owners [sic] Representative, Principle [sic] Minority Investor."

Mr. Williams told the EDAB, "A lot of work has gone into this project so far. We're proposing a 68 unit town home development inside an existing approved master plan community. It's a successful master plan community and they've consistently moved to sell homes at a higher and higher price... We have the property under contract. We are moving rapidly forward... There is nothing that supports this being financially viable, because it doesn't exist in Columbia County."

Mr. Williams continued, telling the EDAB that he was "asking to fill the deepest holes in the project so it comes into the realm of economic possibility."

He also told the Board that Townhomes would not sell the project once it was begun, but would see it through the four phases of development.

He told the Board that he was a minority partner and there was a majority financial partner, but he did not reveal who it was.

The financial advisor for the project told the Board, "We are facing an imbalance with the budget. Our proposal is for a declining 10 year tax rebate on property taxes. The rebate would go back to the developers. Without this rebate it is not clear that the financial balance will exist in our favor and it will be not possible for the project to continue."

Townhome was asking for a ten year declining tax abatement which would go from 100% to 60% over 10 years.

The tax abatement, how it works: the condo owner pays the property taxes, Columbia County rebates the taxes (writes a check) to the developers and gives them the taxes.

Problem: water runoff

Charlie Keith (SRWMD) left and Lance Jones (FGC) right
Charlie Keith (SRWMD Board member) and FGC's Lance Jones (PE) had issues with water runoff.

There were questions about where the project's surface water was going to end up.

Developer Williams said, "The surface water management system has been approved, fully reviewed, and permitted years ago."

Florida Gateway College representative Lance Jones said water runoff is a big problem in the area and disputed the findings of the developer.

Developer Williams said that engineers had approved the plan.

Mr. Jones said he was an engineer and they were wrong. Mr. Jones lives across from the proposed development. He has seen the water with his own eye balls.

EDAB member Charlie Keith, who is also on the Suwannee River Water Management Board, said, "There are a lot of things that's happened in the County over the years that have caused reaction further away from the project. The project site looks fine and then you find out you're flooding somebody that is not even in the flood zone. Runoff is a big concern, especially in that sensitive area."

After some more discussion about the water issues, Mr. Williams said, "We're on a tight timeline. We feel pressured by the market. We would like to move this forward as quickly as possible."

City Manager Helfenberger Weighed In

Lake City City Manager Joe HelfenbergerLake City is in a tight spot for money. The Blanche Project is like an I-V in its arm, draining money from its budget every day.

City Manager Joe Helfenberger said he wants a legally enforceable agreement before agreeing to anything. "I'm not sure what we can or cannot do as far as impact fees. Connection fees - we may be able to look at.... We stand as a strong partner with the County, but we just have to show the residents there is some public interest in doing things."

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