Locals satisfied, but not completely happy, with annexation law changes

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 23, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — After three years of demonstrations, letters, phone calls and bus trips, Good Neighbors of Rowan County may finally be able to rest.
The group has been fighting for changes to the state’s annexation law since Salisbury tried to acquire an area near N.C. 150 just west of the city.
Residents fought off the annexation by overwhelming Salisbury with water and sewer requests, but they didn’t stop there.
“Until the law changed, we knew they could come back and try again,” said member Larry Wright, who lives in Neel Estates off N.C. 150.
The North Carolina Senate passed a bill last week reforming involuntary annexation, and the state House then gave its final approval. The bill now awaits Gov. Beverly Perdue’s signature.
If enacted, the law would let property owners block an annexation if 60 percent of them sign a petition opposing it. The town or city would be barred from trying again for three years.
“We’re grateful for the work of the representatives and senators who worked diligently for the past several years to get this done,” said Good Neighbors President Jeff Matthews.
Matthews said the group is optimistic that Perdue will sign the bill into law. Even if she chooses to veto it, the legislature can override that veto with fewer votes than the bill got when it passed.
“It’s probably not a perfect expression of what needed to get done, but it covers a majority of the issues that needed to get changed in the current statutes,” Matthews said. “A vote or simple majority would have been preferable, but we can live with what’s there.”
The bill allows only property owners to sign the petition, not renters who live in the area to be annexed. This has been a sticking point for some people, Matthews said, but it’s still an improvement over current state law.
Matthews said Good Neighbors also is pleased that the new bill places more financial responsibility on cities and towns.
Water and sewer services must be provided to annexed areas within 31/2 years. Municipalities would have to connect the services to houses in those areas for free if enough residents ask for it.
Carl Eagle, vice president of the group, said members have made repeated trips to Raleigh to speak with legislators about annexation reform. Eagle said he went to the state capital about two dozen times.
“It’s very gratifying,” Eagle said. “It feels like we’ve shown that we can go out and change things if we work hard enough at it.”
When the group first met about three years ago, it had close to 300 people show up, organizers said. Recent meetings have had about 80 people attend.
Eagle said if the bill couldn’t include a vote, he would have wanted the 60 percent requirement for the petition lowered to 50 percent. But, Eagle added, it’s still an improvement over current law.
Chad Mitchell, chair of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, echoed that sentiment Monday.
“I would have rather seen a straight representative vote than people being required to go around and collect a petition,” Mitchell said. “But it’s better than what we have now.”
Carl Ford, the board’s vice chair, said Monday that the petition is a “great start” that gives local property owners a voice in the process.
“It’s not exactly what we wanted, but it’s good — it’s great,” Ford said. “This legislature did what they said they were going to do, and they acted on it, and I’m glad they did.”
During Monday’s board meeting, Commissioner Jim Sides directed some satisfied comments toward the city of Salisbury.
“Their slogan is ‘Discover what’s inside,’ ” he said. “I recommend to Salisbury that they do that.”
Salisbury Assistant Manager Doug Paris said Wednesday that cities still will be able to grow through voluntary annexations requested by local residents or those not stopped by a petition. It does make the process more difficult, though.
“This legislation will definitely shape how cities across the state grow and to what degree,” Paris said.
He said trends show that large cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, and even smaller ones, have been the “economic engine” of the state. Population growth continues to shift toward urban areas, and annexation allows city and town limits to reflect that.
Salisbury did not officially take a stance on the bill or similar legislation proposed this year. Instead, the League of Municipalities advocated for the interests of towns and cities in Raleigh.
Statewide, activist groups fought with local organizations like Good Neighbors to pass the bill. They said involuntary annexation amounts to “taxation without representation.”
Now that reform is all but here, what will happen to the Good Neighbors of Rowan County?
“That’s a good question,” Eagle said. “We’re not sure. … But I know we’re going to get together one weekend soon to celebrate.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.