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Cities Squawk as Senate Annexation Reform Hits Fast Track

'Unconstitutional' petition process replaced with a simple majority vote

In what some are calling “punishment” to the cities that sued over annexation reform legislation passed last year, state lawmakers have rewritten the law so that it is even more unfavorable to cities wishing to engage in involuntary annexation.

In response to a district court judge’s ruling that it was unconstitutional to allow property owners to reject involuntary annexation by petition, Republican state senators have written a new annexation reform law that makes all city-initiated annexations subject to a vote by all registered voters in the annexed area.

In order to reject an involuntary annexation under the original reform law, 60 percent of all property owners in the annexed area had to mail in petitions against it. Under this new proposal, all registered voters living in the area to be annexed could vote in a referendum on the annexation. It would take only a simple majority of the voters — 50 percent plus one — who showed up to overturn the annexation.

In a second piece of legislation brought up in the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, lawmakers proposed de-annexing nine areas recently annexed by Kinston, Rocky Mount, Wilmington, Lexington, and Fayetteville, and Goldsboro — the six cities that sued over the petition process. The cities would not be allowed to attempt annexation of the communities again for 12 years, although the general reform law makes cities wait only three years before trying to annex again.

One senator called the proposals “purely punitive” and a spokeswoman for the North Carolina League of Municipalities called them “patently unfair.”

The bills will go to the Senate floor for an initial vote today, and are expected to pass a final vote Monday. Then they will go to the House.

‘Have it your way’

Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican from Nash County, presented the two revived, rewritten House bills in the Senate Finance Committee. He said the legislation is merely a response to the trial court judge’s ruling, an attempt to give the cities what they said they wanted in their lawsuit — a vote that included renters.

Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat from Wake County, said it sounds like “pure punishment” to him.

“It’s saying that the cities that had already begun and in some cases actually completed the annexation process, that for those cities that were unhappy with the act of the legislature and went to the courts — which is every citizen and corporation’s right under law — that we’re punishing them and saying that if they fail, they’re banned for 12 years from trying again? That just sounds punitive to me.”

Newton responded that, with the exception of Goldsboro’s, none of the nine annexations have been completed, all have been litigated, and most were in litigation at the time the original annexation reform law passed. Also, more than 60 percent of property owners in all nine areas subsequently rejected the annexations by petition.

“It’s my view that all of these cities and citizens that are involved in the annexation areas have been in quite an ordeal and it’s time to put it to rest,” he said. “There’s also the view that the cities were in agreement with the overall reform and then they didn’t like it applying to these localities and so they litigated it. Now we have to start over again with reform. So we want to end this litigation and that’s what the purpose of the de-annexation is.”

Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, who helped Newton rewrite the bills, added that the reforms in no way hinder voluntary annexation.

“It’s involuntary annexation — taxation without representation — that will stop,” he said.

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Democrat from Orange County, said voluntary annexation isn’t enough. Voluntary annexation usually happens only when developers build large developments and ask the city to annex them, she said.

Kinnaird said there is a neighborhood in Chapel Hill that had to be involuntarily annexed in the 1980s.

“Right now it is so close to the middle of town that the town has grown several miles past it, and yet these people that in the ‘80s said they didn’t want to come in,” she said. “But the town grew around them.”

She said the same thing happened in Carrboro.

“We had so many donut holes in the middle of our town that finally what we had to do was redraw our boundaries because nobody wanted to come in.”

Newton assured Kinnaird that none of the nine areas he was proposing to de-annex were “donut holes.”

“All of them, in my opinion, are examples of the most egregious abuses of our prior annexation law,” he said. “Take Oak Level for example, where farm land, row crop land, that was farmed every single year, was classified as densely populated and urban, and that’s just ludicrous.”

“None of these people wanted to be a part of Rocky Mount,” he added. “When they moved out there, built their homes out there, they were far away from the city, and still are.”

Kelli Kukura, a lobbyist for the League of Municipalities, said the cities already have “invested” a “significant amount” of tax dollars on these annexations, and that the courts, for the most part, had upheld them.

“And yet here we are moving them back yet again, but this time for a 12-year period,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult to manage economic development, balance growth and jobs in those areas.”

She warned that making annexations subject to a vote would “allow a very small minority of residents in the annexed area only to kill growth in those communities, across the state.”

“That’s patently unfair to current city residents, over 5 million of them across North Carolina,” she said. “The decision will drastically reduce the quality of life in our communities … I just want to be very clear about that, and about the consequences of this action. It will have a very long-term effect.”

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.