By: Honorable Matt Caldwell
In the nearly 70 years since the founding of Lehigh Acres, the form of local government has changed significantly. When Lee Ratner envisioned a retirement boom town, Lee County hadn’t yet reached 50,000 residents. Today, with over 130,000 residents in just Lehigh Acres alone, it is easy to see why the issue of municipal incorporation is a regular topic of interest.
Understanding the intricate process of incorporation is often overlooked and any conversation should be based in the facts. For a city to be created, the Legislature must pass a local bill, starting at the Lee County Delegation meeting. This bill, after passing the House, Senate, and Governor’s signature, will ultimately require a vote of the residents of Lehigh to then create a city. And before it can even be presented to the Delegation for consideration, a study must be conducted, at private expense, to demonstrate the financial solvency of a future municipality. This is the step that typically sinks an incorporation effort. One potential additional wrinkle is a bill being considered in Tallahassee this year, which would prevent any presentation to the Delegation until after a straw vote is conducted in the proposed community. Suffice it to say, there are serious hurdles to a municipal incorporation.
However, a city is not the only form of local government in Florida. Special districts are a widespread form of government that allow local control without the burdens placed on the incorporation process. Community Development Districts (CDD) are a standard model form of special district that have the power to achieve every municipal purpose, except basically for zoning and police. Gateway, for example, has a CDD that handles all local infrastructure.
Another form is the Independent Special District. Our local fire district, mosquito control district, water management district, etc. are examples of such. During my time in the Legislature, we attempted to balance the need for local control with fiscal prudence within Lehigh Acres. That led to the creation of the Lehigh Acres Municipal Services Improvement District (LAMSID). For all intents, Lehigh already is a quasi-city with a locally elected board that oversees some local infrastructure. And the enabling act for LAMSID allows for an orderly process to expand upon these powers, to include even a role in zoning and economic development. Doing so involves coordination with Lee County government, such that they step out of the roles that LAMSID steps into, potentially powers like water/sewer, streetlights, and sidewalks.
This process is challenging and intricate, however, the most important step is to engage in a community conversation to understand what the residents of Lehigh Acres want. Do they want a general-purpose city government with essentially unlimited powers? Or do they have specific concerns, like sidewalks and streetlights, that a special district could address immediately? Finding satisfaction in the answers to those questions is of paramount importance and I look forward to discussing this issue with the community on April 8th.
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