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NC senators back more forced annexation changes

RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina senators tentatively agreed Thursday to legislation essentially bypassing a judge’s ruling that struck down a new way to block forced annexations and prolonged a tug-of-war involving several municipalities and landowners.
The state Senate voted mostly along party lines in favor of two bills, one of which would cancel contentious annexations by nine towns and cities that were halted in recent months when landowners in the areas set to be incorporated used a new petition process to block them.
Some of those municipalities sued, and Superior Court Judge Shannon Joseph struck down in March the petition process because landowners only had the right to decide. As some municipalities tried to finalize those pending annexations, the Republican-led Senate moved to stop them as the short session began this week.
First, Republicans pushed through a bill approved 31-14 to block the nine annexations altogether for at least 12 years. The Senate also tentatively agreed 30-14 to a bill that would change the method citizens now can use to block future involuntary annexations for at least three years.
The method approved in 2011 by the Legislature but struck down in court required at least 60 percent of landowners in the area being annexed to file petitions. It would be replaced with a traditional referendum that requires a simple majority to stop the annexation. Registered voters in the annexed area could participate.
“We believe that will address the concerns of the court and will address the constitutional issues,” said Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, during floor debate. He said the people living in the areas that the nine municipalities have been in and out of court for years and need some finality after winning in the petition process.
“There was no question what the will of the people was. These folks have been through enough,” Newton said.
Movement of the bills — final Senate votes are Monday before the bills go to the House — signify another victory for local activists opposed to involuntary annexation rules in place for a half-century before they were changed last year and another sobering defeat for the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Only one of the bills would be subject to Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto if they were given final legislative approval.
Landowners complained for years cities abused involuntary annexation by failing to offer city services in a timely manner while requiring them to pay additional city taxes. The only recourse of landowners was to sue. The league stopped any dramatic annexation changes while the Democrats were in power at the General Assembly, but that changed when the Legislature transferred to Republican hands in 2011.
Dozens of activists wearing red shirts returned this week to the Legislative Building seeking assistance yet again from the GOP-led Legislature to respond to the litigation. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, telegraphed months ago that the Senate may step in again to respond to the litigation filed by the towns that led to the March court ruling.
“I had all the faith in the world in them,” said Charlene Moore, a resident of the Oak Level community of Nash County. She said community members have been coming to Raleigh for 31/2 years for help fighting with Rocky Mount over an involuntary annexation: “We’ve been fighting this and trying to get it changed for so many years now and finally we’ve worked hard and got the right people elected up here that are going to make this happen.”
Besides Rocky Mount, annexations would be canceled for Asheville, Kinston, Lexington, Wilmington, Marvin, Southport, Fayetteville and Goldsboro. Only the Goldsboro annexation had been completed before the litigation.
League lobbyists and their allies at the General Assembly said the bills placed even more restrictions on towns and cities beyond the 2011 changes. They said the old annexation process helped keep North Carolina municipalities healthy over the decades and encouraged reasonable growth.
“It’s a shame that we haven’t been able to come together to have discussions about setting good statewide policy,” league lobbyist Kelli Kukura said. “But instead (legislators) are allowing a vocal minority to set the future of economic development in this state.”
The cancellation of the nine pending annexations will “nibble at the ability of our cities to grow in an orderly fashion,” Sen. Bill Purcell, D-Scotland, the former mayor of Laurinburg, said during Senate debate Thursday. “I think we’ve gone too far.”
Voluntary annexations — in which municipal leaders and residents in unincorporated areas agree to expand town borders — won’t be affected. The league didn’t like the 2011 annexation law and the petition process contained inside but considered them the lesser of evils compared to a moratorium on all involuntary annexations.
Kukura said the league wishes the Legislature would have declined to step in this year and let the court case play itself on appeal.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said he doesn’t like the moratorium option and said having a referendum seems to be the next step.
“If the cities don’t like the approach, there’s really no other option,” Tillis said.

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