City Council vows to fight airport de-annexation
SALISBURY — City Council vowed Tuesday night to fight the de-annexation of the Rowan County Airport, saying the attempt by county commissioners to take back the property does not pass muster.
After county commissioners dominated a recent meeting with state lawmakers where City Council made a pitch to keep the airport, council members came to Tuesday’s meeting armed with facts, figures and stronger statements.
Mayor Paul Woodson said county commissioners were wrong and unfair in their characterization of the city’s 2004 annexation of the airport, specifically the claim that the city cherry-picked only airport property that generated revenue.
The city attempted to annex the entire airport region but could not, Woodson said. Among the 218 parcels the city annexed, 157 were residential, including mobile home parks, he said.
“Seventy-two percent of everything we annexed was residential,” Woodson said.
The county’s claim that the city hasn’t contributed to the development of the airport was “very unfair,” he said. The city abided all state laws when it annexed the property, Woodson said.
“We followed every rule,” he said.
Councilwoman Karen Alexander said the city ran water and sewer lines to the area to serve residents. Many housing developments near the airport needed services, particularly sewer service, to avoid public safety and health concerns, City Manager Doug Paris said.
The city ran utility lines in 1997, long before the 2004 annexation, Alexander said, including water-sewer extensions to airport hangars and the National Guard at a cost of $372,000 to the city.
Following the annexation, the city extended water-sewer lines that benefitted the entire area at a cost of $4 million, she said.
Although Salisbury did generate property tax revenue with the annexation, the city “also expended much more than that” in utility costs, Alexander said.
Councilman Brian Miller said the history of the airport, which the city featured in its pitch to state lawmakers last week, isn’t what matters as Salisbury fights to keep the property in the city limits.
“What matters is the future of the airport and the tax base that can be created there,” Miller said.
Now that North Carolina has banned involuntary annexation, cities have few options to expand boundaries, he said.
“I don’t want to give up any area that’s already inside the city limits,” Miller said.
De-annexations must pass two litmus tests in the state legislature, Miller said, and the airport de-annexation doesn’t pass either one.
First, the city annexed the airport property years before the General Assembly banned such action, Miller said. Successful de-annex attempts happen because an annexation takes place within a short period before a moratorium, he said.
Second, the city extended water and sewer lines to the airport region, Miller said. De-annexation can occur when a city fails to extend services to a newly annexed neighborhood, he said.
“In both cases, we pass the litmus test,” Miller said.
The county’s attempt to take back the airport does not qualify for de-annexation by the legislature, he said. It also would set a precedent that would prove difficult, Miller added.
“If they take this as an opportunity to de-annex, they are going to open a can of worms for many other municipalities across our state,” he said.
Miller said he hopes state lawmakers will see the de-annexation effort “for what it is.” He didn’t go into detail but has said in the past that he believes county commissioners are using de-annexation as retribution for city initiatives they don’t like.
All City Council members — Maggie Blackwell and Pete Kennedy were absent — agreed they want to continue offering to work with county commissioners on airport development.
The city has pledged to give 100 percent of its property tax revenue to the county to help pay for runway extension and other airport needs for the next 10 to 15 years.
While the county has continued to pay for airport operations since the city annexed the property, Paris said he’s not sure Rowan has made any capital investments like the city did when it extended water and sewer lines.
Alexander called for an end to political posturing and said she wants to partner with county commissioners on the airport, as well as other economic development projects.
“I’m very proud of the council members because I’ve heard each one of them in different ways extend the olive branch over and over, and we do that when we see them, no matter what they say,” Alexander said. “We still care about them.”
At last week’s meeting, county commission Chairman Jim Sides said he doesn’t believe City Council members have honest intentions and told state lawmakers “it’s time to sever that relationship.”
Vice Chairman Craig Pierce told the city to “get out of the way.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.