Judge blocks annexation law change

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Staff and wire reports
RALEIGH — A North Carolina judge on Tuesday struck down the state’s new method for giving citizens of unincorporated areas the opportunity to block forced annexations by towns and cities. The ruling potentially strips away a key element of laws that property rights activists sought for years.
Despite the ruling, the city of Salisbury will not revisit a failed forced annexation of neighborhoods along N.C. 150, which the City Council dropped in 2008 after strong resistance.
“We have no plans for annexation, and this ruling does not change that,” City Manager Doug Paris said.
Judge Shannon Joseph issued a written order Tuesday throwing out the petition process authorized last year by the General Assembly. The measure halted a municipality’s effort to expand its borders if enough property owners in the targeted area said no. The judge ruled that measure unconstitutional because it did not include residents who weren’t landowners.
The case is likely to be settled in the appellate courts.
Good Neighbors of Rowan County, a group that originally formed to fight Salisbury’s annexation attempt, fought for more than three years to change the state’s annexation law. It held its last meeting in September after the reform bill was passed.
President Jeff Matthews said Tuesday he is disappointed, and he’s still trying to learn the details of the ruling and figure out the group’s next steps.
“Obviously, it’s not what the General Assembly put into law, and it certainly doesn’t totally reflect the intent of all those across the state of North Carolina that worked so diligently to try to reform the law,” Matthews said.
Vice President Carl Eagle said he believes the ruling will be overturned on appeal.
If not, forced annexation foes have another route through the General Assembly to ban the practice, Eagle said.
“I know that we have an ace in the hole regardless of what happens,” he said.
If needed, state Republican lawmakers have the votes to pass a bill calling for an annexation referendum, Eagle said.
The referendum would allow voters in the area to approve or block a proposed annexation at the polls. Lawmakers considered the referendum option earlier but favored the petitions, Matthews said.
“It got way more complicated trying to do it that way,” he said.
There were questions of who would oversee the process and how much it would cost, he said, that don’t apply to a simple petition.
The Republican-led Legislature passed laws last June that overhauled the state’s involuntary annexation rules, which have guided municipal growth in the state for more than 50 years. While many property owners in unincorporated areas have long chafed at being absorbed by cities and having to pay higher taxes, city leaders have said the previous laws had served the state well by helping cities grow at a manageable rate.
Several municipalities with pending annexations sued late last year, arguing the new method was unenforceable because it only gave landowners, not all voters within the area that could be acquired, the right to decide. Joseph agreed after two hours of arguments Monday in Wake County Superior Court.
Matthews, of Good Neighbors, said the petition process is meant to get the opinion of the “real stakeholders” in an area to be annexed. Those who don’t own property, he said, “have no direct responsibility for any additional costs or taxation that would come from annexation.”
But the judge ruled that two local laws and portions of the statewide involuntary annexation law enacted in 2011 were unconstitutional and void.
The laws said proposed involuntary annexations by cities would be terminated if 60 percent of the landowners in the targeted areas signed a petition within a roughly four-month period opposing it. The town or city would be barred from trying again for three years.
Property owners surrounding Lexington, Kinston, Fayetteville and others already have used the process to halt pending annexations. The petitions involving those involuntary annexations and a handful of other pending cases now have no effect, Joseph wrote, meaning the annexations could potentially resume if her ruling isn’t overturned.
Supporters of North Carolina’s cities and towns have said the handful of communities whose pending involuntary annexations were seemingly overturned by the 2011 laws shouldn’t be penalized for following the previous rules.
“The annexations had gone through all the necessary challenges in the courts,” said Anthony Fox, a Charlotte lawyer representing three municipalities in the case. “They would have been effective by now.”
Jim Eldridge, a Wilmington lawyer representing residents who lived near four municipalities and got the chance to overturn pending annexations, said he will advise his clients to appeal the ruling. An appellate court could issue a stay delaying Joseph’s order until after appeals are completed.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which also defended the laws in court with Eldridge, plans to review the ruling, a spokeswoman said. However, the office of Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said it understands the attorney general plans to appeal.
The Legislature could revisit the issue when it returns for its budget-adjustment session in May.