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NC House panel’s annexation law reform adds voting

RALEIGH (AP) ó American demands for freedoms of choice, property and representative government clashed Thursday as a legislative committee worked to reform North Carolina laws that allow cities and towns to annex nearby property owners against their will.
North Carolina is one of just a handful of states that allows communities to expand by forcing landowners into communities and taxes they don’t want. Defenders of the 50-year-old law permitting involuntary annexation say it allows cities and towns to expand as suburban sprawl sees middle-class residents and their tax revenues grow outside municipal limits. But property owners opposing annexation, and the higher taxes and fees that come with it, have urged for at least a decade that lawmakers limit municipal expansion powers.
The House Finance Committee changed a wide-ranging annexation reform bill Thursday to allow affected residents a chance to trigger a vote on whether to carry out a municipal expansion sought by elected leaders. A referendum would be allowed if 15 percent of registered voters within the existing city limits and the area to be annexed signed a petition seeking a vote.
“I don’t feel good about explaining to people why we don’t have a bigger voice in the process” for affected property owners, said Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, the House majority leader. “This amendment addresses the core issue of annexation.”
Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, said a referendum ought to be a condition before a city government imposes taxes and limits a person’s freedom to use his property as he wishes.
But the referendum proposal pleased neither side in the debate.
Circulating petitions that collect 15 percent of voters in big cities like Charlotte or Raleigh would be so difficult that referenda would be rare, though the process may be viable in smaller cities, said Tony Tetterton, vice president of the Fair Annexation Coalition, a citizen’s group demanding reform.
“It’s a high hurdle,” he said.
The North Carolina League of Municipalities, which represents the interests of municipalities and their leaders, will work against the reform legislation, spokeswoman Kelli Kukura said.
“We can’t support a referendum,” she said.
The league’s supporters say requiring referenda would block most annexations because few people would vote to take on additional municipal taxes needed to pay for police and fire departments, garbage collection and civic sewer systems. Supporters also contend representative government means officials make many civic decisions.
Tetterton’s group said cities have not escaped urban decay despite being allowed to expand. And the price of urban expansion has been at the cost of individual rights and a growing feeling of alienation toward government.
Besides creating a chance for residents to vote on being annexed, the reform proposal would:
ó tighten restrictions on areas considered ripe for annexation.
ó make it easier for areas where many low-income families live to petition a local government to request annexation and city services.
ó require a municipality to extend water and sewer lines within three years to the entire annexed area.
ó block property tax collections and further expansion if city services aren’t delivered within three years to an annexed area.
ó give new residents up to 20 years to pay assessments for water and sewer services to reach their property.

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