City has no plans to annex islands

WINDER - While Auburn faces a court battle with Barrow County over November's forcible island annexations, Winder officials are taking a hands-off approach toward theirs.

Winder's city limits hold eight islands totaling about 90 acres, but the city has no immediate plans to annex them, Mayor Buddy Ouzts said.

"We have no time frame for annexing them or to address the situations," said Ouzts.

An island is a phenomenon created when a city annexes around a tract of county land, enclosing it on all sides. The result is a patch of unincorporated county surrounded by city. Those "islands" are illegal under state law and a city can annex them by force.

Bethlehem also has two islands. One houses about 30 homes in Thornbrook Subdivision and one house stands on a half-acre island on Gifton Thomas Road, said Joyce Hogan, city clerk.

Auburn forcibly annexed about 100 acres in November, a move unpopular with the affected land owners. Barrow County's attorney filed a lawsuit Dec. 14 in Barrow County Superior Court against Auburn. County officials are asking a judge to investigate all of Auburn's annexations since 1949.

Neither Winder nor Bethlehem plan to go down the same path.

"We've talked about it, but we prefer to let people come in on their own," said Barry Edgar, planning director.

Winder's islands encompass residential development on Candlewood Terrace and Forest Drive, a large farm on Sims Road, Bush Chapel AME Zion Church on Horton Street, the Golden Pantry on Broad Street, some vacant lots and some property owned by Barrow County, including the school bus barn and maintenance facility.

"State law allows Winder to forcibly annex land owned by the county," said Keith Lee, chief administrator. "We've had some conversation about closing in some of those islands."

A few years back, Winder had a moratorium on annexations that lasted almost two years.

"We had to catch up with growth," said Jane Skelton, city clerk. "We have to maintain roads, supply power, police, fire stations."

In December, Winder closed a small island when it annexed .680 acres for a People's Bank annex and .290 acres at 275 N. Broad St.

No property tax in Winder

Winder residents have paid no property taxes since 1979. Operating only on utility revenue, Winder supplies a police and fire department, water, sewer, gas and a community television station, is undergoing a downtown revitalization and maintains $7.6 million in reserves.

"The gas and water funds the city," Skelton said. "Some will annex themselves in when they want to develop or get sewer."

Still, some of those landowners don't care to become Winder residents.

"Some have been islands for 30 years and never wanted to annex in," Skelton said. "Cows are one reason. The cows are grandfathered in, but as they die or get eaten for supper, they can't replace them."

Other landowners fear that Winder will one day re-establish a property tax, Ouzts said.

Courthouse and jail to stand

on a reverse island

To be eligible for annexation, the property must touch the city. Winder and Barrow County had to get approval from the General Assembly to annex the land on which to build the new courthouse and jail. That property did not touch the city and state law says that a county courthouse must be inside the city limits of the county seat, which, in Barrow County, is Winder. So the new courthouse and jail will stand on a reverse island - a patch of city surrounded by county.

County Commission Chairman Doug Garrison said a consolidated government, like Athens-Clarke County, would simplify the governing process.

"I would be in favor of a consolidated government and I am trying to encourage us to have the opportunity to unify government and consolidate our services," Garrison said.

In the meantime, Ouzts would welcome any new Winder citizens.

"If anyone wants to annex, we will be happy to take them in," Ouzts said. "It costs $200 and the form is downloadable on the city Web site."