This farm is on Old Boones Creek Road in Gray. Recent residential development encroaches on established agricultural land. (Johnson City Press)
Tennessee’s annexation laws have undergone serious scrutiny, and it now appears city and county leaders are ready to join forces and mend metaphorical fences.
The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations recently completed the legislatively mandated review, and unintentional disconnects, gaps, inadequacies and potentially disproportionate representation has been uncovered.
Last week, state legislators representing Johnson City and Washington County worked with Johnson City Commissioners to better understand which recommendations were most important to the city. The county also made a move early this week, announcing it would reform a local committee that reviews, approves and helps set growth boundaries in place.
At the end of last year’s session, legislators voted overwhelmingly to eliminate non-consensual — what has been referred to as “forced” — annexation through Public Chapter 707.
During the prior year, 2013, legislators established Public Chapter 441, which strengthened a moratorium on annexations and extended TACIR’s review of state policies governing municipal growth plans.
Until May 15, cities can annex by ordinance only those formally initiated before passage of 707 and approved by the county or with the written consent of the owners. After that date, cities can annex property only with the written consent of the owner or by referendum. Also, cities annex agricultural land only with written consent of the owner.
Still, passage of 707 left a number of issues unresolved and raised more than a few questions. The following is a sampling of TACIR recommendations and responses from County Mayor Dan Eldridge and City Manager Pete Peterson:
Costly referendums/non-resident participation
Issue: When there is no unanimous owner consent, cities can annex property only by referendum, a costly process unless aligned with a regular election — one of the main reasons referendums have rarely been used when annexation by ordinance is possible. Referendums also can exclude nonresident landowners from the decision-making process.
Recommendation: Design a formal dual petition process to protect and allow nonresident land owners to participate. There would be one petition for those favoring the annexation and one for those opposed. The petition with the most signatures determines the outcome.
Eldridge: This is a very practical recommendation that will minimize the cost but more significantly will give non-resident property owners a voice in the process. This addresses a glaring deficiency in the current statute.
Peterson: If there is a requirement for a referendum, it is essential that everyone affected be allowed to vote. Residential property owners should be treated no differently than non-residential property owners. There are still several details to be decided — will out-of-state land owners be allowed to vote? Will persons who have lost their right to vote in general elections be allowed to participate in the referendums? Can corporations vote? In the case of rental property, does the owner or the tenant(s) get to vote? What about property that has repossessed by the creditor? Perhaps since annexation also impacts existing city residents, all the residents of the city should also be allowed to vote.
Issue: A landowner or developer with property in the county but not contiguous to the city limits may want to be annexed to receive services for commercial and industrial development. However, the new law makes this more difficult, because landowners and residents in between can stop them.
Recommendation: Devise a method by which cities can annex non-contiguous property to accommodate development needs without taking in unwilling residents of unincorporated areas.
Peterson: This must be done to ensure continued growth and development, as most commercial development and a large part of new residential development demands city services and resources that the county can’t provide. Not all desirable land is immediately adjacent to the current city limits.
Eldridge: I agree there needs to be an exception to the restrictions on annexation in the event of an economic development opportunity. However, rather than adopting a “one size fits all directive” I would prefer the General Assembly establish guidelines for local governments to work within. Each occurrence of this nature will have its own unique set of circumstances and requirements and as such the ultimate decision should be determined by way of an inter-local agreement between the county and city commissions within state guidelines.
Issue: When a city has not fully implemented a plan of services adopted when an area was annexed, residents and landowners’ only recourse under current law is to sue the city to provide services. De-annexation may seem a reasonable alternative to the city, but residents and landowners have no way to initiate or participate in the process except by petition.
Recommendation: Allow a dual-petition process, which includes those owning agricultural land. Disallow de-annexation when it would create “islands” and “donut holes” or non-contiguous areas.
Eldridge: I need to know more about this issue before elaborating. The potential implications are significant and complicated with great potential to have unintended consequences on the county as well as the city.
Peterson: Johnson City is, and has been, very responsible in meeting our commitments to provide city services as outlined in the Plans of Service. De-annexation would create a host of problems for both the city and the county, while driving the cost of service provision up.
Updating growth plans
Issue: Tennessee’s Growth Policy Act requires the designation of urban growth boundaries, planned growth areas and rural areas based on growth projections over a 20-year period. These plans, which are approved with the consent of both city and county officials, do not expire and there is nor requirement to update them.
Recommendation: The economic recession has changed growth patterns, and any plan not revisited in the last few years is likely outdated. The Legislature should require all counties to convene their coordinating committees and review their growth plans and update at regular intervals. Individual cities should be allowed to retract their growth boundaries without approval from other members of the committee, but only where the boundary abuts a rural or planned growth area ad only after giving notice to the county and to residents, as well as holding a public hearing. The affected “county” would then decide whether to include the removed area in its rural or designated growth area. State approval would be needed.
Eldridge: I agree with this recommendation. However, not so much from the annexation perspective but from the planned growth and economic development perspective. With the recent changes in annexation laws and the ensuing uncertainty regarding future growth and the provision of services necessary to accommodate that growth, the coordinating committee’s statutory role is now vital in gaining consensus among local governments as we plan for and incent future development and growth.
Peterson: As with all plans, it is proper that a
regular review be made to ensure adequacy and accuracy of planning. We
are constantly reviewing and updating the many different plans we have
and utilize. If cities are allowed to retract their growth boundaries
without approval from other members of the committee, why shouldn’t
cities be allowed to expand their boundaries? There may be land owners
in the area being reduced that will be negatively impacted by not being
able to be annexed at some point in the future.
Mutual boundary adjustment
Issue: Tennessee law allows adjacent cities to adjust their shared municipal boundaries by contract without giving notice or holding a public hearing.
Recommendation: Require cities to give notice and hold a public hearing before finalizing adjustments.
Eldridge: (The mayor declined comment, citing this to be strictly a municipal issue).
Peterson: While not required to do so, Johnson City would provide notice and allow public comment about any adjustment of the shared municipal boundaries.
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