News: CJ Exclusives

Cities File Lawsuit To Block Annexation Petitions

New argument is that renters are excluded from petitions opposing annexation

Cities suing the state over recent annexation reform legislation say they are concerned that the law disenfranchises those who don’t own property.

The Annexation Reform Act gives property owners the chance to use a petition process to reject involuntary annexation into cities. Basically, if more than 60 percent of property owners in an area targeted for annexation sign petitions opposing it, the city cannot force those property owners into its borders.

Six cities whose involuntary annexations were halted by the legislation are arguing that the right to petition against annexation is a vote — and renters, not just property owners, should be included in it.

Supporters of the legislation say it is not a vote; it simply is a means for property owners to prevent their property from being taken without their consent by cities.

Annexation reformers believe cities are concerned not about renters’ voting rights, but about losing hundreds of thousands of dollars they were counting on in new property taxes from the annexed homeowners.

Goldsboro, Kinston, Lexington, Wilmington, and Fayetteville filed their complaint in Wake County Superior Court Nov. 20. (Rocky Mount filed a similar complaint separately). It argues that making the right to vote contingent on property ownership violates the state constitution.

It’s not the first time the cities have tried this argument. Several months ago, city attorneys warned county boards of elections not to go forward with the petition process without getting preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Several of the cities with annexations at risk of being undone are located in what are called Voting Rights Act counties — counties that under the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act must get preclearance from the Department of Justice before making any major changes to their election practices. The intent of the law was to prevent discrimination against black voters.

The cities suggested to DOJ that renters were often poor and minorities and that leaving them out of the petition process violated their voting rights. The DOJ didn’t buy the argument.

Cathy Heath, founder of StopNCAnnexation.com, hopes the Wake County judge won’t buy it, either.

“Unfortunately, sometimes politics plays a role in our courts,” she said.

Heath said it doesn’t make any sense to include anyone other than property owners in a decision that primarily affects their property. She said it’s ridiculous to suggest some sort of racist intent in excluding renters from the process. “They’re reaching very far to try to make a case,” she said.

“Almost every community I have gotten to know over the years that rose up fighting a forced annexation was very diverse,” Heath said. “They had blacks and Asians that would come up to the General Assembly just as mad as all the white people about being hit over the head with a club and drug away by the hair.”

Heath said it is ironic that cities say they are standing up for the voting rights of minorities. “Minority populations were more hurt when the city had all the say about who was annexed and who wasn’t, because [cities] would selectively go around minority and low-income areas and leave them out.”

She also said cities can’t have it both ways. If they want renters to be included in the decision of whether to reject an involuntary annexation, renters also should be allowed to request to be annexed voluntarily.

Cities often avoid voluntary annexations, as those who want to be annexed are usually poor, have low property values, and are in need of services the city can’t afford to provide them.

“They abolished the idea of having a referendum for a vote in 1959 when they passed this law [allowing involuntary annexation],” Heath said. “They have never considered the opinion of renters before. They didn’t want a vote before, and they don’t want a vote now.”

What they want is to delay the undoing of their annexations and to convince the General Assembly to repeal the petition process altogether while they stall, she said.

Kelli Kukura, director of government affairs for the North Carolina League of Municipalities, said the league is not involved in the lawsuit, but it supports the cities that are.

“This situation has been particularly difficult because the towns made decisions about these annexations based on the law at that time, and then had new law applied to them retroactively, after taxpayer money had already been invested. This has understandably upset a number of town residents,” Kukura said.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.