11/26/04 — Residents await judge's annexation decision

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Residents await judge's annexation decision

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on November 26, 2004 1:57 PM

The sign says it all:

"Waiting for Judge Crow decision."

The homemade sign written in blue is beside Salem Church Road in an area the Goldsboro City Council has voted to annex. The decision the residents are awaiting is whether the annexation will stand.

It's been over a month since the judge asked for legal briefs from the lawyers on both sides of the case.

The residents of the area, on the east and west sides of Salem Church Road and the north and south sides of Buck Swamp Road, say the council didn't follow proper procedures. They oppose an annexation that they say will raise their property taxes but give them few services in return.

The city says it followed the law and the annexation is needed for the city to grow.

Judge Crow is considering sending the annexation back to the council. That could require a new annexation report, two public hearings and a new vote on the matter. But so far, there's been no word from the judge.

The city doesn't believe Crow has the legal authority to make that decision, while the lawyer for the annexation opponents believes that he does.

Crow asked the lawyers for the city and the annexation opponents to give him legal briefs by Oct. 20 on their views.

Now the judge must decide whether enough detailed information was provided in the city's annexation report to allow the council or the citizens to make an informed decision regarding the annexation.

Those details include fire protection, the additional cost of water service to the residents and financial details of the annexation.

During the trial, Harrell Everett, the city's lawyer, said he didn't think that the law allowed the judge the authority to request a new hearing and vote.

Jim Eldridge, the plaintiff's lawyer, said he didn't see anything in the law that would prevent the judge from issuing that order.

During the trial, the city stipulated that the residents in the annexed area would have to pay more for water, as outlined in the city's annexation report.

Everett suggested that the court send that one issue back to the City Council to address.

Everett said the city had followed the legal requirements and had committed to provide the same services to the annexed area as were in the city.

"One exception is the water rates, and we ask the court to remand that one issue to the council," Everett said.

Everett said the only issue he saw before the court was whether a written agreement for the water service and the fire hydrants was necessary. He didn't believe the city had to have that degree of specificity in its report.

Crow asked Eldridge what would be gained by voiding the annexation, because the city could start the annexation process again.

"It saves two to three years of taxes for the people," replied Eldridge. He also explained that the politics of the existing council, or a new council, could change if it was given a longer period to consider the annexation.

Eldridge said he believed the annexation report left out essential details.

"The city intends to put 64 fire hydrants, but the report is silent on that," Eldridge said.

The extension of services is a cornerstone of an annexation, Eldridge said, and case law says as much detail as possible should be provided in the report.

But, he said, neither the city nor the petitioners had all the information.

Eldridge said that his understanding, based on testimony from city staff, was that two documents had to be cross-referenced to understand the services. Those documents were the original annexation report and a later addition to that report detailing expenditures and revenues.

Eldridge said he understood that the city was in a hurry, and that it wasn't uncommon to make mistakes when you hurried.

"But these are significant, if not substantive errors," he said.

The judge wondered if the lack of those specific details affected the council's vote.

"It could have had an impact on the voting members," Crow said. "Maybe we should send it back, detail it more, ask for more input and put it to another vote."