Cornelius' efforts to annex 161 acres of industrial land got a big push on Monday when an independent hearings officer backed the city's petition.

In his 33-page recommendation, Richard Forester wrote that the city's application for an expansion of its Urban Growth Boundary met all of the criteria required by Metro, the regional government which determines development boundaries.

Forester's recommendation is a turnaround for the city, which has struggled to bring portions of the 161-acre area bounded by Cornelius-Schefflin and Susbauer roads into its boundaries since a similar addition was initially approved by Metro in 2004, only to be dismissed a year later.

Cornelius City Manager Dave Waffle was heartened by Forester's endorsement for the expansion, which now goes to the Metro Council on March 20.

"This will assist landowners to follow through on what they thought was the direction set by Metro in 2004, provide options for local industry and business and give Cornelius citizens more of a chance for local jobs," Waffle said.

In November, Metro staff issued a report that was critical of Cornelius' latest bid to add industrial land to its borders.

But Forester said that if Metro's criteria were read conservatively, nearly all expansion efforts would fail the test.

Instead, Forester argued, Metro's rules must be read to mean that some expansions could meet the test.

The Metro staff report also said that Cornelius hadn't made a case that its expansion couldn't wait until Metro reconfigures boundaries in 2009.

But, Forester pointed out, Washington County officials have estimated that delaying the expansion could boost land acquisition costs by $500,000.

"Perhaps 'cannot wait' is in the eye of the beholder," Forester wrote. "Metro and the region may be able to wait, but Cornelius has a need and an opportunity in the cost of important public improvements which may not be around in time for the next analysis."

City officials also had argued that more than money was at stake.

In the city's initial application for an expansion, Richard Meyer, Cornelius' development and operations manager, made the case that, for Cornelius, the need for more industrial land was dire.

"[Cornelius] has the highest poverty rate, lowest taxable property per capita, highest proportion of minority population and longest average commute of the 26 jurisdictions in the region," Meyer wrote.

At a Feb. 19 hearing on the issue, Sheldon Manufacturing, the city's largest employer, said its plans to expand its operations had prompted it to look at properties outside the city because the inventory of land in Cornelius was so small. If the company left town, it would take with it nearly 200 jobs.

Forester seemed swayed by Meyer's arguments, especially the calculation of commute time. Forester argued that if Cornelius could reduce the amount of commuting that its residents do by bringing jobs closer to their homes, the whole region would benefit from lower carbon emissions and an easing of traffic congestion.

"The needs of the city and its residents are not going away, they are just getting direr," Forester wrote.

With Forester's recommendation, Cornelius officials feel they're in better shape to argue that the Metro councilors should approve their bid for expansion. But in 2005 it was the council which reversed itself and withdrew its approval of a northern expansion in Cornelius.

To that end, Waffle said he was appreciative of Forester's recommendations, but said the process wasn't over.

"We still need a majority vote of the Metro Council," Waffle said.

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