04/24/08 — Lawmakers taking look at N.C. rules on annexing

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Lawmakers taking look at N.C. rules on annexing

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 24, 2008 2:14 PM

After holding a series of public hearings across the state, a special House study committee voted Wednesday to recommend that a temporary moratorium be placed on all involuntary and satellite municipal annexations.

If adopted after the General Assembly goes into its short session on May 13, the moratorium would be in place until June 30, 2009.

The proposed moratorium, approved 10-2 by the committee, would cover not only any new annexations, but also any annexations already approved, but not yet in effect -- such as Goldsboro's annexation of property along Buck Swamp and Salem Church roads, which is currently tied up in appeals in the state Supreme Court.

The goal, explained state Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, a member of the House Select Committee on Municipal Annexation, is to give the legislature more time to study North Carolina's annexation laws, which have not changed since they were enacted in 1959.

"We've held three public hearings all across the state, and we've heard from a large number of people saying the law needs to be changed," he said. "This is a big deal. A lot of municipalities are working hard to annex areas around them and that's got a lot of people upset.

"We need to have a joint study committee or even a blue ribbon study commission sit down and study the laws and look what changes there might need to be."

Some such changes discussed include more public input on annexation issues, as well as city tax refunds if timetables for services are not met. Many citizens affected by annexation, though, want legislators to go further and require that residents of unincorporated areas approve the proposed annexation before cities can go forward.

But all of those ideas, Pate said, will probably have to wait until the long session, especially since the state Senate hasn't yet had the opportunity to study the issue like the House.

"This is just a House committee," Pate said. "And we're hoping not to stay in Raleigh all summer."

The next long session will likely begin in January 2009.

Pate, a former Mount Olive mayor, did not offer a prediction, though, as to how the moratorium might fare before the full legislature this year. It is being opposed by the powerful city and town lobbying group, the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

"The details would have to be worked out," Pate said, especially in situations where money has already been spent in preparation for annexation.

Still, for anti-annexation groups like Good Neighbors United in the Buck Swamp area, this is a good first step.

"The committee heard a tremendous number of horror stories and I think that impressed them," said group president Bob Pleasants. "Of course we're very encouraged out here, but there's still a long way to go. We're planning on doing everything we can to see (the moratorium) happen."

Municipal officials, on the other hand, are slightly concerned about the specter of a ban on annexations.

Of particular consternation, Goldsboro City Manager Joe Huffman said, is why satellite annexation -- a voluntary action involving areas not contiguous to city limits -- would be included, especially when voluntary annexation by petition is not.

He explained that such a move would effectively halt any future projects like the new Rosewood Wal-Mart, which was built only after the city agreed to satellite annex the site.

"We get those requests all the time," he said.

"Generally, the only time you satellite annex anything is when they want water and sewer. Satellite annexation is voluntary," added Chuck Allen, city councilman and mayor pro-tem. "So I don't know why that would be included."

Huffman also voiced concerns about the long-term effects a halt on annexations might have, crediting them for the strong growth and economic vitality of many of the state's municipalities.

But, Allen acknowledged that if legislature feels there is a need to examine North Carolina's annexation, then the moratorium is understandable.

"Personally I think it's working OK," he said. "But I think the legislature's job is to review the laws, and I'm sure they've heard a lot of citizen requests to look at this one. So maybe that's what they need to do."

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.