Local officials, activists endorse competing annexation reform laws

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Competing bills in the state House and Senate address the controversial issue of involuntary annexation, something that has been debated locally for several years.

The N.C. League of Municipalities recently announced support of bills in the House and Senate that would require towns to provide citizens with at least two of four major services before annexing, and other requirements while retaining towns’ rights to annex if needed.

House Bill 727 and Senate Bill 472 would provide citizens more time to request water and sewer extensions to their property, more information about the process, more time to challenge annexations, more detailed financial information and financial estimates that will help ensure the timely delivery of infrastructure.

The towns would also be required to provide at least two of four major services—police, fire, solid waste and street maintenance—to annex and would be prohibited from using narrow strips of land to connect an annexation area to a city or town; and creation of a new category of citizen-requested annexation (voluntary) for low-wealth areas, allowing a 75 percent petition of property owners in a contiguous low-wealth area to qualify for annexation.

At last week’s pre-agenda meeting, the Shallotte Board of Aldermen approved sending a letter to the General Assembly endorsing the bills.

By doing so, the town is also opposing several other bills that have been introduced, which would require a vote of the people before an involuntary annexation would become effective.

That bill states, “No annexation ordinance may take effect until a vote of the people affected by the proposed annexation has been conducted by the appropriate board of elections, and the results certified indicate that more than 50 percent of the voters approve the annexation.”

Shallotte Town Administrator Paul Sabiston said it’s important towns retain their right to annex.

“There are bills eliminating municipalities’ right to annex. We’re against that.”

He said the provisions in the bills the town supports are “more amenable to all concerned…It will require more work on behalf of the towns, but that’s OK.”

Basically, the towns want to maintain their ability to annex, he said, noting Shallotte, in particular, has many “islands” or “doughnut holes”—unincorporated areas surrounded by town limits.

“It’s hard to make a coherent argument that they can’t be annexed at some point,” Sabiston said. “If there’s some radical legislation that doesn’t allow annexation, there will be competing services between the town and the county. It’s less cost-effective. It results in higher taxes.”

“People who live in doughnut holes and on the edge of the towns are taking advantage of services the town provides and not paying taxes. That’s not fair to those in town who are paying taxes,” Sabiston said.

According to the N.C. Office of Management and Budget, 54.71 percent of the state’s residents live in municipalities.

Sammy Thomasson of Shallotte Point, a member of the Shallotte Point Preservation Group (SPPG), said he understands Sabiston’s point, but he and others in his neighborhood—a small, unincorporated area on the Shallotte River—are in favor of the bills that require a vote of the residents.

SPPG President Ronald Hobbs agreed and said the group is officially supporting Senate Bill 494, which is going to the finance committee, and House Bill 645, which is headed for the judiciary committee. Both are titled, “An act to amend the annexation laws to require meaningful services and meaningful oversight.”

These bills also include provisions for residents to vote on the annexation and limit the scope of annexation to “contiguous areas in need of meaningful urban services which cannot be resolved without extension of municipal services.”

Hobbs said the bills the league is endorsing are not “totally unacceptable, but the league is trying to improve a horrible situation.”

As the bills go through the committee review process, “A bill could emerge that would be suitable to everybody,” Hobbs said.

Members of the Shallotte Point group attended several town meetings last year and in 2007 to protest annexations in their community and to ask for a written assurance from the town that the community would remain a low-key, residential area.

The town board declined to do that but told them they didn’t have any intention of annexing the riverfront community.

In Sunset Beach, town administrator Gary Parker has advocated for some changes to the annexation law but is, for the most part, happy with the existing law.

Parker said this week the town council has not taken action to endorse the bills, but he would support some of the provisions recommended by the League of Municipalities.

Parker said amendments to the state’s annexation law should address the need to annex low-income areas that need municipal services, should prohibit shoestring annexations and should give homeowners more time to pay sewer assessments.

“Otherwise, the existing annexation law is a good annexation law,” he said. “It’s interesting to note that the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations as long ago as 30 years ago pointed to the North Carolina annexation law as a model law for other states to follow.”

Parker said approving the bill that would require votes from the property owners would be a “huge mistake” for the state.

“You might as well kill the annexation law,” he said.