Raleigh hears from Rowan on annexation legislation
By Hugh Fisher
RALEIGH ó The statewide debate over involuntary annexation continued Tuesday in the state capital, with local citizens and current and former Rowan County commissioners making their voices heard.
More than 300 people packed a meeting room in the Legislative Office Building in downtown Raleigh to speak and listen at the latest meeting of the Joint Legislative Commission on Municipal Annexation.
The group consists of state representatives and senators, other elected officials and members of the public charged with hearing opinions and suggesting possible changes to the state’s annexation laws.
Last month, the commission heard representatives from the N.C. League of Municipalities, an organization representing the interests of cities and towns.
The league favors the current law, dating from 1959, which allows annexations by cities and towns with or without the consent of property owners or residents being annexed.
Tuesday, members of the public had their say. There were supporters of current annexation law on hand, many wearing stickers to show support for local growth.
But they were outnumbered by visible and vocal residents opposed to involuntary annexation, many wearing red to show solidarity.
Two groups, the Fair Annexation Coalition and Stop N.C. Annexation, are the main umbrella groups fighting the status quo.
Carl Eagle, a former chairman of the Rowan County Board of Education, is vice president of the Fair Annexation Coalition. That group seeks a wide-ranging overhaul of annexation law.
Eagle brought about 40 residents and local leaders to Raleigh via chartered bus for the meeting.
“We’ve all been working together,” Eagle said of locals and other opponents of involuntary annexation.
Larry Wright, a Rowan County resident, was one of those who addressed the commission, arguing against forced annexation to increase cities’ tax bases.
Wright also opposes the League of Municipalities’ lobbying efforts. “Contrary to what the league preaches, we do not owe cities money just because we live nearby,” Wright said in his remarks to the commission. “We all know that they get Powell funds, block grants and sales tax revenue that we neighbors help to pay for.”
After the meeting, Wright said he hoped his comments would make a difference.
“But if I were a betting man,” he said, “I’d say they won’t.”
Rowan County citizens who fought Salisbury’s attempt to incorporate land along N.C. 150 are prominent among involuntary annexation foes throughout the state, Eagle said.
“We are sort of the lighthouse,” Eagle said. “Most of these people are still fighting their annexations.”
Last year’s annexation attempt by Salisbury failed after residents overwhelmed the city with requests for water and sewer service, presenting Salisbury with an economic challenge it couldn’t overcome.
Many of the red-clad annexation opponents were seeing red, so to speak ó angry over what they see as a trampling of their rights as voters and property owners.
Audience members who signed up beforehand were allotted two minutes each to speak. Many of those opponents yielded their time to allow Mark Davis, head of the Fair Annexation Coalition, to present a 20-minute rebuttal to the League of Municipalities’ position.
“We need real change and annexation laws that benefit both citizens and cities,” Davis said. “We’re not against annexation. We’re for responsible annexation. We’re for beneficial annexation.”
Davis said the only option for citizens opposed to potential annexation of their communities or land is to take the city or town to court.
In his presentation, Davis campaigned to change that. He described a process of “responsible annexation” to make neighborhoods part of a larger community, not to merely increase the revenue base.
Saying a purpose of the 1959 involuntary annexation law was to provide services such as water and sewer, police protection and fire department coverage, he argued against annexation of areas which already have those services.
Davis also spoke in favor of having “an independent but interested third party” to approve annexations. This approval could come from the state, from a county’s board of commissioners or a new agency.
The most talked-about provision was the idea that citizens should have a vote in the process, either through a referendum or a protest petition, which is a petition drive among those in the area to be annexed.
If a majority of landowners, or those with a majority of the property value, opposed the annexation, the plan would not go forward.
Other changes Davis suggested include altering the way “non-urban” land is defined to prevent large-scale annexation of farmland or forested land, and practices such as partial annexation of subdivisions.
“That’s one of the worst things you can do,” Davis said, adding that he knew residents whose land had only been partially annexed.
He urged members of the Joint Commission to move swiftly and to make large-scale changes to annexation laws.
“I know the League of Municipalities and everybody is coming to you and asking you to leave things the way they are,” Davis said.
However, “No other state has adopted our state’s draconian measures,” he added, countering the League of Municipalities’ assertion that North Carolina is a model state for involuntary annexations.
Audience members gave Davis a standing ovation. Later, opponents continued to applaud and cheer after other annexation foes spoke.
The crowd became so loud at one point that commission co-chair Sen. Robert C. Soles threatened to end the proceeding if disruptions didn’t cease.
No Rowan residents spoke in favor of the status quo. But a number of citizens from elsewhere in the state, and a larger number of municipal leaders, gave their support to current annexation policies.
Latimer Alexander, an at-large member of the High Point City Council, said the power of involuntary annexation was needed to incorporate so-called “donut holes” left when surrounding communities are voluntarily incorporated into the city.
“As our city has grown through voluntary annexation, these subdivisions have been isolated,” Alexander said. “These people are currently receiving many city services without paying for them. They receive city police service. They are receiving city fire services. They have no volunteer fire departments.”
Mayor Daune Gardner of Waxhaw favors involuntary annexation because, she said, “lax or permissive county officials” and developers could not be trusted to self-regulate.
“Has this tool been misused? From the stories I’ve heard, I would say yes,” Gardner said. “Do we need to change the rules? Possibly.”
According to audience members from Rowan County, representatives from the city of Salisbury were present at the meeting. But no city officials addressed the commission, and none could be located for comment following the meeting.
Four current and two former Rowan County commissioners were on hand.
Tina Hall, who is a public member of the Joint Legislative Commission, attended and took part in the group’s deliberations.
Commissioners Jon Barber, Carl Ford and Raymond Coltrain attended, as did former commissioners Arnold Chamberlain and Jim Sides (see related story).
When the time came for the joint commission members to discuss the issue, Rowan County’s two voices called for change.
“The League of Municipalities claimed that cities are the area’s economic engine. But have we forgotten who is driving the car?” Hall asked.
N.C. Rep. Fred Steen, a Republican from Landis, is also a member of the joint commission. Steen asked his colleagues to support a process in which communities that wish to incorporate must hold a referendum.
“I think we should look at the areas that are going to be forcibly annexed and see that they have the right to vote, up or down,” Steen said.
The commission will hold its final meeting Jan. 22. At that time, members will decide what recommendations to pass along to the state Legislature as a whole.
The commission could draft a bill to be sent to the N.C. House and Senate.
In all likelihood, however, the commission will vote on a slate of recommendations that will be passed along to legislators.