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How cities grow: Essential annexation law needs fine-tuning

The Fayetteville Observer
Legions of North Carolina residents may be campaigning to repeal the state’s involuntary-annexation law. But numbers alone won’t win that war. Annexation proponents have the big guns.
That said, there are some good reasons to modify the law so that it treats annexed residents more fairly. It’s possible that some of those changes could be made soon.
Here in Fayetteville, we’re accustomed to hearing anti-annexation opponents speak out, especially the 43,000 of our newest residents who arrived en masse in 2005 in the Big Bang annexation. But Fayetteville’s annexation opponents aren’t alone. Groups all over the state are fighting cities’ and towns’ right to make adjoining unincorporated areas part of their jurisdiction ó and to impose higher city property taxes on the residents.
All that’s necessary for an annexation is for residential density to reach what the state defines as an urban level, and for the adjacent city or town to have the wherewithal to extend city services ó such as police and fire protection, and municipal sewer and water lines.
To the people getting annexed, it looks and feels like a land grab, a municipally thuggish way to a property-tax heist. But to government people, it’s something else altogether ó it’s providing orderly city government to an area that has evolved into city-like form, but without the services that city-dwellers need.
Counties in North Carolina don’t have the structure or resources to provide urban services. While counties do provide schools, courts, public health, welfare and other such services, they aren’t in the business of installing sewers, or the more intensive policing and fire protection that densely populated urban areas need. Nor do counties do a good job of planning and regulating urban growth.
While citizen groups suggest to a legislative study committee that annexation should be subject to a referendum vote, lawmakers have little enthusiasm for that. “Most members of the General Assembly recognize that a referendum feature would put an end to annexation as we know it,” study committee co-chairman Rep. Paul Luebke says. And there is intense pressure from cities, towns and the N.C. League of Municipalities to leave the law alone.
With millions more residents expected to arrive in North Carolina in the next two decades, this is not the time to end annexation. More of the state will become urban, and should be managed that way.
Still, there is inherent unfairness in some annexation procedures. The time window for legal challenges is too short, and cities have too much leeway in when they must extend sewer and water service. The law should require them to move more promptly, or exempt new residents from full taxation until all services are in place.
But that’s about all that should change. Annexation is an important tool for managing urban growth, and we’re going to need it more than ever.

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