News: CJ Exclusives

First Step in Comprehensive Annexation Reform Looms

Measure would let homeowners veto hostile annexation attempts

Historic annexation reform legislation is on the verge of passing before the 2011 session of the General Assembly adjourns. House Bill 845, which could become law in the next few weeks, would reverse a 50-year-old policy silencing residents who face being annexed into cities against their consent. Even so, some say the bill doesn’t go far enough.

The Annexation Reform Act of 2011 would accomplish two major goals. It would give property owners targeted for forced annexation an opportunity to reject or “veto” the annexation, and force cities to provide meaningful services — including water and sewer — to those being annexed at no cost other than regular service charges.

The bill is unusual in that it has the support of the state’s grass-roots annexation reform groups while not being opposed vocally by the powerful North Carolina League of Municipalities. The league has remained on the sidelines because reformers are holding back a measure declaring a moratorium on all annexation proceedings for the next year. Reformers believe the moratorium is a trump card they will play only if needed.

H.B. 845 passed the House by a 107-9 landslide in May and is expected to glide through the Senate, where Republicans have a veto-proof majority. And “God help” Gov. Bev Perdue if she vetoes it, supporters say.

What the bill does

The single most important reform in the bill gives property owners a voice, said Daren Bakst, director of legal and regulatory studies for the John Locke Foundation.

Since involuntary annexation became legal in North Carolina in 1959, rural property owners have had little recourse when a city decided it wanted to take them in. They were forced to live under city rules and pay city taxes for services many neither wanted nor needed.

The reform bill offers property owners a chance to “veto” a city-initiated annexation if 60 percent of them sign petitions rejecting the annexation.

Some activists argue that the onus should not be on annexation opponents to reject the annexation. Instead, they say, 60 percent of property owners should be required to approve an annexation before it goes through.

But it’s a burden Cathy Heath, co-director of the Stop NC Annexation Coalition, is willing to bear. Based on her experience fighting forced annexation, getting petitions signed and mailed by 60 percent of targeted property owners should be no problem.

“They kick into gear, they get organized, and they’re highly motivated,” Heath said. “They’ve gathered petition signatures from way more than 60 percent time and time again, and that’s when the petition was nothing more than a statement that didn’t have any weight of law.”

H.B. 845 a big step in the right direction, Bakst said. “Considering for 52 years this state has not given property owners any voice at all, to actually have a voice now is huge.”

The second most important reform the bill makes, Bakst said, is that it requires cities to provide water and sewer lines to annexed neighborhoods at no cost to the property owners.

Cities often argue they need to annex a group of property owners in order to “save them” from their failing septic systems, and then fail to provide water and sewer services in a timely manner after the annexation is complete. And when the lines are built to the annexed community, property owners get the bill, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars per homeowner.

Bakst said the cost of providing “free” water and sewer lines alone may be enough to deter cities from attempting a forced annexation.

What the bill doesn’t do

Some reform activists object that H.B. 845 does nothing for communities that already face forced annexation or that currently are in court fighting an annexation proceeding.

Keith Bost, who lives in Sapona, a golf-course community just outside Lexington, is incensed. Sapona residents are in court fighting what they call an improper and illegal annexation by Lexington. Bost says his neighbors face long odds, as courts typically side with cities in legal actions against annexation. He was hoping the reform bill would be retroactive, letting it apply to communities now in litigation or recently annexed.

Heath said she would have preferred making the bill retroactive as well, but doing so would decrease significantly its chances of passage.

There also has been talk of including a provision exempting farms from involuntary annexation. The petition process alone is not enough to protect farms from annexation, Heath said, because a farmer could get stuck with a group of property owners who actually wanted to be annexed and be outvoted.

This addition also would decrease the bill’s chance of passage. The goal, Heath said, is to break annexation reform into smaller bills that the League of Municipalities can accept, one at a time. Trying to overturn the whole system in one bill would be futile, she said, as the league, which has lots of friends in the legislature, would never let it pass.

Right now, the reform bill is the most important thing, Heath added. Activists are sitting on House Bill 9, which would nullify all annexations now in litigation, as leverage to make sure H.B. 845 becomes law.

After the reform bill is passed, Heath said, Republican lawmakers have promised to do everything in their power to pass a series of local bills designed to rescue communities in litigation and even to reverse some recent annexation proceedings.

Heath added that Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, has promised to take care of farmers with a separate measure, House Bill 168, exempting them from annexation, extraterritorial jurisdiction, and city zoning ordinances.

H.B. 845 now sits in the Senate Finance Committee. With the passage of the budget, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has assured annexation reform groups that the bill will be a top priority.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.