Aberdeen's City Council unanimously approved annexations of more than 500 acres last night - crucial properties that officials say could pave the way for the construction of thousands of homes - in the face of a public hearing that drew hundreds of people in protest.
About 300 people turned out for the council hearing - so many that it had to be moved from Aberdeen's City Hall to a larger hall at the nearby municipal Fire Department. Some saw irony in the council's surprise at the turnout and lack of foresight in finding a larger venue for the hearing because the chief concerns voiced by the public include whether the city can properly plan for how such growth will affect infrastructure.
"We are losing faith in our leaders when they can't understand the depth of concern from the community at large," said George Barrett, 87.
In addition to those who would become residents under the annexation plan, the meeting drew current city residents who objected to an 18.5-cent increase in the property tax rate - to 73.5 cents per $100 of assessed value - which was passed last night as part of the city's budget for the 2007 fiscal year, beginning July 1.
Under Mayor S. Fred Simmons - who took office in November vowing not to raise taxes - water and sewer fees also have risen, doubling as Aberdeen struggles to balance its budget.
Some in the crowd wore red, a symbol of unity against annexation. Led by Paul Burkheimer, 62, whose brother sold their family's farm and provided a key part of the land for proposed development, opponents have sent mailings, stuck signs in front yards and recently hired two lawyers.
When one opponent asked for those in support of annexation to stand, only four people rose. One of them spoke, bringing jeers.
The 524 acres at issue last night is part of more than 1,000 acres expected to be brought into the city limits through annexation in coming months. Officials have said they want to take on all of the annexations simultaneously to form a cohesive plan for development.
After nearly three hours of testimony, the council voted, 5-0, to annex the land. City Manager Douglas R. Miller said the community has 45 days to bring the issue to a referendum, which many who spoke vowed to pursue.
Simmons tried to pack as many as possible into the council chambers, normally comfortable for the handful of regulars who attend meetings. Last night, they sat in aisles and on the floor, lined up along the walls and stood behind the council dais.
But after the council passed the budget, Simmons informed the crowd that the fire marshal had been called because the size of the crowd exceeded the room's rated capacity. The mayor, who is a voting member of the council, offered to postpone the public hearing on annexation. Met with disdain, he moved the meeting to the Fire Department.
Residents implored the council to look more closely at the potential effects of the development and offered sharp critiques of the city's current infrastructure and services. A similar campaign, involving yard signs and a Web site, is lobbying the county school board to address overcrowding issues at Aberdeen High School.
"Fix the water, fix the budget ... fix the train station, fix the drug problem, then come and see us about annexation," said Patrick King.
A fee of more than $20,000 per housing unit would be imposed on developers to ease the burden on city infrastructure, and council members assured the crowd last night that the city's water and sewer needs would be addressed.