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A misinterpretation of the law could put the City of Bonita Springs’ Pelican Landing annexation referendum in doubt.

Bonita officials haven’t collected enough signed consent forms from residents in the annexation area to hold the referendum, the Lee County Attorney’s Office said this week in a memo to county commissioners. After several public hearings and months of debate with its unincorporated northern neighbor Estero, Bonita passed a referendum resolution Oct. 16. Bonita wants to ask 842 voters in the upscale Pelican Landing community just north of city limits to join Bonita on Feb. 25.

According to state law 171.0413, owners of more than 50 percent of land in the annexation area have to consent to annexation prior to a city conducting a referendum. Bonita is attempting to annex 486 acres so it needs signed consent forms from owners of 243 acres. Bonita has only received consents from owners of 175 acres, said Michael Jacob, managing assistant county attorney.

“We spotted this issue and we told Bonita you have until this (February) referendum to cure it,” Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch said. “Bonita said they will work on curing it and will seek to add in the additional acreage… I think the referendum will happen. To the extent there’s a concern, Bonita will remedy it. We will not remedy it.”

Bonita Springs City Attorney Audrey Vance said the city believed it had to get consent from 50 percent of the annexation population, not acreage. The acreage stipulation is being used because more than 70 percent of the 486 acres is owned by non-resident voters.

“We have one opinion and the county attorney has another,” Vance said. “I’m not going to bicker. We still have consent. We have a discrepancy on the amount. I don’t want to open up a scab so that’s all I’m going to say.”

When asked if she thought the referendum would still go on, Vance said: “If the people want a vote, they will get a vote. That’s what’s being worked on.”

County commissioners are in favor of giving Bonita officials until the Feb. 25 referendum to gather the additional consent forms, Wesch said. While state law requires the city to have the consent forms by the February referendum, county commissioners could have started conflict resolution proceedings by Nov. 15 so it could preserve its right to file a petition in Circuit Court.

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Commissioners declined that option.

“Given the fact this is a technical issue rather than a substantial issue, the board told our office thank you and we have confidence Bonita will do whatever needs to be done to hold the referendum,” Wesch said.

Estero leaders, who have called Bonita’s referendum “annexation creep,” are keeping tabs. Estero and Bonita officials have already debated the annexation referendum twice at Pelican Landing. Bonita has mailed an eight-page color brochure to each of the 842 registered voters, detailing why Pelican Landing residents should pick the city over unincorporated Lee County.

“The county says it’s a technicality,” said Jack Lienesch, chairman for the Estero community planning panel and a Pelican Landing resident. “The city is working on fixing the technicality. But if (Lee County Supervisor of Elections) Sharon Harrington doesn’t have the letters by the referendum date, that would stop it.”

Harrington said her office is staying out of the issue.

“We don’t have anything to do with that,” Harrington said.

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