Councilman Lewis' statement on annexation

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

This is the full text of City Councilman Mark N. Lewis’ statement regarding annexation of the N.C. 150 corridor:
Remarks before the Salisbury City Council Meeting of April 15, 2008.
The reason that I ran for City Council was to be one of the people who were capable of making the tough decisions. I have always prided myself in doing the research necessary to make an informed decision about any particular issue. My only promise to the citizenry who elected me was that I would evaluate information as it is presented, weigh the pros and cons of a decision, and then confidently vote. Let me tell you this, in my 5 years of serving the citizens of Salisbury, this decision has weighed heavier on my soul than any other. But I have a responsibility to be a leader for this City and I will do just that.
I think it is prudent to acknowledge some truths that are present in this decision. First from the viewpoint of the citizens in the proposed annexation area:
As a rule, people don’t like to be forced to do anything particularly if it involves their children or their wallets. When either of these is threatened, people tend to become angry and aggressive. We all must recognize this fact and forgive those whose behavior has been extreme.
Forced Annexation is just that, forced. The citizens in the proposed annexation area are asked for their opinion on this action, but they have no other say or vote in the matter.
In this particular case, the citizens do not see a sufficient cost-benefit relationship to be in favor of this annexation.
Finally, citizens in this proposed annexation area feel like this annexation is a “done deal” and who could blame them based on the results of at least the last four years’ of annexation.
Second, let’s look at from the viewpoint of the County Commission:
This proposed annexation brings the rest of the airport into the City of Salisbury. Our commissioners have rightly targeted the airport as an economic development tool and are working toward improving the facilities to recruit new business. They view this proposed annexation, along with our previous airport annexation, as a usurpation of their authority and they don’t want to be required to work with the City in this matter. They in as much told us so when they came before this Council demanding that we call off our annexation and also de-annex the airport.
The proposed annexation will redirect approximately $240,000 in State Sales Tax Reimbursements from the County Coffers to the City’s.
They feel so strongly about this issue that they have told us that there would be no further City-County cooperation on any issue should we complete this annexation.
Third, let’s look at it from the City of Salisbury viewpoint:
The city believes that if we do not continue to grow then we will be facing ever-increasing costs for services with the associated tax increases to support them.
The City’s wish is to continue to grow in the areas that “make the most sense”. The Hwy 70, Hwy 150 and Hwy 29 corridors are the most likely candidates for potential growth.
Using only voluntary annexation to grow will eventually cause pockets of properties all along and within the City that will not be part of the City. This will require “going around” these areas to provide municipal services to other city citizens. This is problematic at best and significantly increases the service delivery cost for those citizens.
Principals of Involuntary Annexation
I have been evaluating all of the information that has been provided to me by both the City Staff and opponents of the annexation. I have not changed my mind on the principal of forced annexation. I truly believe that municipalities in North Carolina have been given this law as a means of ensuring that our municipalities stay strong. The General Assembly recognizes that one of the greatest economic development tools that this State possesses is its strong municipalities. They believe that those areas within our State that meet their definition of urban development have a need for a higher level of service than can be provided by County Government. Therefore, they look to the local municipality to provide these enhanced levels of service.
To me the real question here is not whether there should ever be forced annexation or not, the question is when? At what point in time should the municipality be able to enact an eminent domain type right of the community to forcibly annex? Maybe the current thresholds are too low, maybe not. But that is truly a function of the General Assembly and one that should rightfully be discussed during this upcoming session.
I agree with the opponents of this annexation in their belief that there is something “un-American” about forced annexation. But sometimes the needs of the community outweigh the needs of the individual. Even our founding fathers recognized this when our country was formed. Individual states and cities had to sacrifice for the greater good of the united country. The question still remains though, what is the greater good and when is the proper time for sacrifice. I am pleased to know that this annexation has created enough passion in people’s life that they will take the time to travel to Asheville and Raleigh and give input to our State Legislators about this. The State’s Annexation Laws, like all laws, should reflect the will of its people and if they are too liberal at the moment, then we should get them changed. I do honestly believe, however, that if they are eliminated all together, then it won’t just be the municipalities that suffer, but rather the entire State. In my mind, the required threshold for forced annexation is the real question in this matter.
Salisbury’s Process for Involuntary Annexation
For the past 5 years, the Council has had a goal of proceeding with a systematic annexation plan governed by the laws of the State of North Carolina. We have been very transparent in our methodology of growing this city. Our process was designed to meet State Law so that we could defend our actions should there be an appeal. This process is quick and includes very little public dialogue. In fact, the public’s participation is basically limited to attending a public information workshop and then 3 minutes before this Council at a public hearing. Of course, all of the council and our Mayor have met with anyone who has sought our time for this discussion. But this is not enough.
There were many meaningful comments at our public forum representing people from all walks of life. I would like to quote neighborhood leader Larry Wright from this meeting:
“On a personal level, all of you have been courteous and polite. For that I thank you. As a city council, your actions toward us, your neighbors, have been anything but polite and courteous. One would think that since we live in close proximity to you that you would want to be friends with us. If fact, you have been very unfriendly. A friend would have mentioned to us long ago that you have plans to change the relationship you have with us. You have not done that.”
These words, along with many others, helped me to realize that though we may have differing opinions about an issue, there is still room for cordial, respectful discussion. In the case of the city’s current annexation process, I will agree that it is neither friendly nor respectful of the people in the proposed annexation area. Therefore, I think we need to make some adjustments to our process.
First, I think that if the Council is going to adopt a goal in favor of systematic annexation at its retreat, then we should assign two Council Members to work along with City Staff on this goal in much the same way we do our other goals. These two Council Members would then have input on which areas that qualify for annexation would meet the Council’s definition of the systematic and controlled growth of our City. In addition, I would suggest that these two Council members work out a better communication strategy than is currently in place. Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy emphasized this while he was here for our retreat. There may still be plenty of anger and animosity within any proposed future annexation area but they will at least feel like they were part of the process rather than having it systematically forced upon them.
County Commissioner’s Reaction/Plans
As for the County Commissions role in this annexation process, I have a few observations. First let me publicly state that I do not believe that Chairman Chamberlain’s property being in the proposed annexation area is the motivating force behind the Commission’s opposition to this annexation. We must acknowledge that, at the very least, they will be forced to work with the city on their airport economic development plans and will lose $240,000 of revenue due to redirected Sales Tax Reimbursements. Therefore, their reaction has some merit.
Many have also questioned the County’s use of County Tax Dollars to stop this annexation. I, too, question why they would even consider using my tax dollars for a potential law suit against 20% of its own citizens (or more if Rockwell had continued with its annexation plans). And yes, even we Citizens of Salisbury are also Citizens of Rowan County and pay the same County tax rates as everyone who lives outside a municipality along with the citizens of Spencer, East Spencer, Landis, China Grove, Granite Quarry, Rockwell, North Kannapolis and Cleveland.
I will tell you that this particular part of this whole issue has been the most distasteful. I am tired of battling the Commission at every turn just because we don’t share the same vision on a particular issue. The urban-rural divide will often time clash on various subjects. This happens to be one of them. But to even suggest that all City-County cooperation will be over should this annexation occur is just petty and below the standards our citizens expect of their elected representatives. We must stop this internal bickering because, while we are doing so, other Counties are recruiting business and industry providing needed jobs for their citizens. If we keep this up, what business in their right mind would want to locate here? And, even if they decide to, if the County and City are still at odds, why would the city participate in any Economic Development incentive package involving cash payments, tax grants, or utility extensions at our citizen’s expense? It is time for all of us to rise above our differences and get back to the business of governing in a respectful, cooperative manner that shows that, though we have differences of opinion, at the end of the day, we are all Rowan County Citizens interested in supporting our community with good jobs, clean water and air, and a Quality of Life that is unparalleled in this State.
This Particular Annexation
Now let’s get down to the case at hand which is this particular proposed annexation. For me, there are a number of factors in play that give me pause in voting yes. First is the cost. Our final report shows the cost of this annexation to be prohibitive for the near future and would require us to use existing citizens’ tax dollars to make this happen. While I understand that at times we have to make an investment today that will not bring returns until much later, this annexation doesn’t rise to that level. Sure 30 years from now this might have made sense, but from a financial point of view, it doesn’t right now.
The substantial use of the Subsection D departure also gives me pause for consideration. Effectively, we are using 429 acres of land that would not qualify under the State’s Density threshold as a land bridge to get to the lots defined as urban in nature. This Subsection D area cannot exceed 25% of the proposed annexation area which explains why this particular annexation is so large in scope. This does violate the principal of small, systematic annexations that the City has been doing in the recent past. If we have to use so large a land bridge then maybe this isn’t the time to annex this area.
But what about the Hwy 150 corridor? I tell you that this area will someday qualify for annexation in a more prudent manner when development occurs along the portion of 150 between Jake Alexander Blvd and these subdivisions. That is, if the state law remains intact. But we cannot use this corridor as our means of qualifying the proposed area for annexation because the density along this area is not sufficient. This also causes me to wonder if the timing of this annexation is right. If the area between Jake Alexander Blvd and these subdivisions does not meet the urban density test, then these subdivisions are not “in the way” of progress. And quite frankly, until that time occurs, I don’t see me voting for annexing these neighborhoods. I may be presented information in the future that might lead me to change my mind, but right now, I don’t think that this annexation would be the right time or method even if the numbers came in suggesting it was economically feasible.
So, in summary, I will not support this proposed annexation. But the question remains, where does this leave us? Well, I see a number of things that need to take place:
The City’s annexation process needs more input from its elected officials early in the game to determine any potential annexation areas and we need to amend the process to allow for increased citizen dialogue.
The Good Neighbors of Rowan, County Commission, and our State Legislators need to give input to those within the State Legislature evaluating the annexation laws for any potential changes in density or contiguousness thresholds.
City and County leaders need to work together for the benefit of our community. For our County to prosper, this cooperation is essential and is expected by the electorate we all serve.
Finally, there have been some bruised feelings through this process. We are all still members of the same greater community and I, for one, think we need to forgive each other for any statements, threats, or accusations made in the heat of the moment. Whatever we might have said to one another, I know that we are all good people here in Rowan County and I am proud to be your neighbor.