Carolina Journal News Reports
LEXINGTON — Times are tough in Lexington. The outsourcing of textile and furniture manufacturing has left thousands out of work, dozens of plants sitting idle, and the city’s once vibrant “uptown” struggling to stay in business.
Just beyond the city’s vacant shopping centers and troubled housing market lies a more prosperous community called Sapona.
Sapona is a golf and country club community in an unincorporated part of Davidson County, just a mile and a half outside Lexington’s city limits.
The grass literally is greener in Sapona. The home values are higher, the schools are better, and there is virtually no crime. Residents say they couldn’t be happier with the water, trash, sheriff and fire services they get from the county.
But Lexington officials say Sapona residents need help, and they are bound and determined to give it to them.
Sapona is the “most high profile area” — as the city manager calls it — of three now being annexed by the city of Lexington.
Cities often paint dismal pictures of neighborhoods they seek to annex, claiming the residents have overflowing septic tanks and are unable to flush their toilets. In Sapona, this is not the case.
In North Carolina — one of only four states that allow “forced” or involuntary annexations — state law requires that an area must be in need of “meaningful” and “significant” services and that the city must be in a position to provide them before it can be annexed.
The residents of Sapona say there is no service they want or need from the city.
“If there were a need for annexation, we would ask to be annexed,” said Keith Bost, a Sapona resident and a leading anti-annexation activist.
Bost started a nonprofit group called Citizens United Against Forced Annexation, which has organized rallies in Raleigh. He refers to the practice as “legalized extortion” and “economic slavery.”
“It’s time the state of North Carolina grew up and became sophisticated and intelligent enough to stop using some form of slavery to turn its wheels,” he said.
Bost said there are only two reasons for annexing Sapona and neither benefits Sapona. The most obvious, he said, is to broaden Lexington’s tax base. The other he calls downright sinister: using the city’s annexation powers to help developers while further expanding the tax base.
Bost says a December 2006 e-mail from Tammy Kepley, Lexington’s community development director, to Alan Carson, Lexington’s director of finance, and John Gray, the city manager, confirms his suspicions.
“John York approached me concerning a tract of land he owns off Tyro Road. Eastwood Development is possibly interested in purchasing and developing the property and asked Mr. York to see if annexation would be a possibility,” Kepley wrote.
Eastwood Development wanted to build high-density housing, which would require sewer service, as the yards would be too small for septic tanks. The only thing standing between the development and Lexington’s sewer system was Sapona. Building the trunk line around Sapona would be expensive, so it was decided it would be best to build it right down the middle of Sapona, said Bost, which would require the city to “tear up” Sapona’s golf course.
While the other two neighborhoods being annexed — Cow Palace and Rolling Park — are less affluent than Sapona, they also are surrounded by planned high-density housing areas.
Annexation would give developers a more direct route for the sewer line and provide thousands of new taxpayers to help cover the cost, Bost said.
Who’s helping whom?
Mayor John Wasler admits that Sapona doesn’t have much to gain in the process, but says the community needs to pitch in for the benefits they already enjoy.
Sapona is close enough to Lexington to take advantage of its amenities but not close enough to pay for them, and it’s not fair, he said.
Those amenities include the hospital, shopping, the sewer that services Sapona’s elementary school, and Lexington’s natural gas pipeline that attracted Pittsburgh Plate Glass, which employs several Sapona homeowners, Wasler said.
Sapona residents may keep the hospital and retail shops in business, but they wouldn’t be there in the first place if it weren’t for “the critical mass made up primarily of the citizens of Lexington,” he said.
He said Tyro Elementary School would’ve been out of compliance with the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources without Lexington’s sewer service.
He acknowledged that the county paid for the extension of the sewer line and that Sapona parents pay double for out-of-city sewer service. But if Lexington residents hadn’t paid for the sewer treatment facilities 50 years ago, he said, the service wouldn’t have been available, the school wouldn’t exist, and Sapona’s homes wouldn’t be as valuable.
In addition to the “free” amenities Sapona already receives, Wasler said, there is a “package of services” that comes along with the 56-cent tax Sapona residents will pay after they are annexed. Wasler said he was prepared to “make a case that 30 to 35 cents of that is going to providing services.”
He calls the arrangement mutually beneficial, though he admits it the benefit might be 60/40, Lexington/Sapona. He says Sapona dwellers have “a certain obligation to their neighbors in the city.”
Wasler calls himself a “George Bush Republican” and noted he’s the first Republican mayor Lexington ever had.
“I’m pretty right wing, but doggone it, there’s such a thing as community,” Wasler said. “They’re part of our community and I think they ought to help defray some of the costs of maintaining this community.”
He said as a Republican he recognizes cities need to grow to prosper. “If the City of Lexington should dry up and blow away, Sapona is going to be hurt,” Wasler said.
Bost noted that state law forbids a municipality from citing financial need as justification for annexation.
Annexation foe heads to Raleigh
Rep.-elect Rayne Brown, R-Davidson, was elected in part to fight forced annexation. Her predecessor, Hugh Holliman, publicly condemned involuntary annexation, but abstained from voting on the issue.
Brown made it a major campaign issue in her 2008 and 2010 runs against Holliman.
Brown also lives in an unincorporated part of Davidson County, about five minutes outside Lexington’s city limits. She said she chose to live there because of the “freedom.”
“They have ordinances in the city we didn’t want,” Brown said. “There are more rules and regulations in the city. We like the openness. We like that we have acres around us and no one bothers us,” she added. “If I’d wanted to live in the city, I would’ve lived in the city.”
Brown said city officials often hold the flawed view that annexation helps them financially. “Cities stop prospering because they overtax and they over-regulate,” she said, and expanding their borders won’t fix that.
While Brown realizes she’s only “one vote and one voice,” she believes the movement against forced annexation is growing as it affects “more and more” people across the state.
“Its time has come and gone,” she said. “I think it’s on its last leg.”
Rep. Larry Brown, R-Forsyth, has invited Rayne Brown to work with him to reform the state’s annexation laws. Rayne Brown said she also was encouraged to learn that forced annexation is a big issue for many of the 24 freshmen lawmakers. “We’re a big class. I’m hoping we’re going to have some strength.”
She’d like to change the law so that an area cannot be annexed unless the majority of residents in that area vote to be annexed. She’s also seeking a moratorium on all annexations while the law is being reworked, but doesn’t know if it can be implemented fast enough to save Sapona and Cow Palace, which are currently in litigation.
Bost said there were some “very serious” areas where Lexington was out of compliance with state law. They are waiting on a decision by the state Court of Appeals, but he guesses the court will give the city a few months to make changes that would allow the annexation to proceed.
The process might be delayed a little longer by appealing the state Supreme Court.
Bost said he’s hopeful there will be enough time for Brown to get a moratorium bill passed, but “it’s getting down to the wire for us, Nash County, and several other areas” mired in disputes over forced annexation.
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.