Orchid residents push council to delay Marsh Island annexation

TOWN OF ORCHID — Nearly 200 Orchid residents packed the hall at a Town meeting Monday in hopes of derailing what most saw as a flawed and rushed process intended to annex Marsh Island into the Town.

Their efforts resulted in a 3-2 vote to delay annexation indefinitely. After beginning the process of annexation over the summer when approximately 80 percent of Orchid residents were out of state, the Town scheduled a first reading of the annexation ordinance for Monday and a second reading for Friday.

Monday’s meeting was billed as an organizational meeting of the new Town Council to swear in the two re-elected members and one newcomer, Harris Webber. That did happen, with a Special Call meeting immediately following it.

To learn of the annexation vote, residents had to seek out the Legal Notice advertisement in the local daily paper on Nov. 8. No special letter or email was sent out to the residents alerting them that issue was coming up.

When residents heard that the issue would be addressed in such short order, with both required hearings and votes in less than one week, it set off a chain of telephone calls and emails, which resulted in the huge turnout at the meeting.

The venue was moved from the usual place — a tiny conference room at the Orchid Golf and Beach Club — to the Golf Clubhouse main dining room. Every seat was filled with spectators standing in the back when the swearing in meeting was called to order.

Mayor Richard Dunlop, who has pushed for the annexation since 2005, was re-elected Mayor and Councilmember Francis “Bud” Oatway was chosen as Vice Mayor.

Oatway, who had originally voted to accept Marsh Island’s Petition to Annex in September, reversed his vote after hearing dozens of his neighbors and constituents voice their concern.

Though a few people presented arguments against annexation, most raised issues with the seemingly covert process and with what they saw as a lack of information disseminated to or provided to the average citizen.

Marsh Island Homeowner Association President John Von Hagen presented the case of the seven families now residing at Marsh Island and the future owners and residents of the community.

Von Hagen assured Orchid officials that the property owners were in the process of taking over management of the community from its New York-based developers. He said the homeowners were determined to make Marsh Island “a successful development” and that he looked forward to an expanded relationship with Orchid.

Expanding the borders of Orchid to include the 40 acres of Marsh Island and potentially 32 homes if the development is ever built out would be an irrevocable action. Some residents argued that the annexation would also set a precedent for any of the other neighboring subdivisions adjacent to Orchid to also seek annexation.

Nearly four hours into the meeting, the newest Councilmember Webber called the question after a motion by Vice Mayor Oatway for the delay and a second by Councilman Paul Johnson. Despite hearing empassioned pleas to gather more information, do financial analysis and get a legal opinion, Mayor Dunlop and Councilman Bill Troxell voted against putting the annexation on hold.

Mayor Dunlop had pitched the idea to Town residents as a way to obtain an inexpensive parcel of land on the island on which to build a Town Hall because, as part of the annexation deal, Marsh Island agreed to sell Orchid two lots for a total price of $25,000.

It was quoted that those lots are worth about $500,000 each. On Monday, Dunlop assured the residents that the decision to build a Town Hall was a totally separate issue.

“It has not been studied,” Dunlop said, about what to do with the $500,000 the Town has set aside for the potential construction of a Town Hall.

Councilman Troxell said that he had found in his research that there would be financial advantages — both in the form of additional property taxes and state revenue sharing dollars — that could be available in the current budget year should Orchid complete annexation prior to Dec. 31. He quoted an amount of $29,000, but that did not constitute a sufficient incentive for at least one resident present.

“Shame on you if you make this decision to save $29,000,” said Tom Albani.

“If I were you, I would make it my quest to find out what the electoratorate is thinking,” Albani said. “Think of the unity of our community.”

The Council may pick the issue back up at its Jan. 5 meeting. In the meantime, the residents requested to get more information on which to form educated opinions on the matter.

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