03/25/11 — Lawmakers debate annexation rules

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Lawmakers debate annexation rules

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on March 25, 2011 1:46 PM

RALEIGH -- Residents of the last annexed area of Goldsboro scored a victory in their fight against annexation Thursday when the state House Government Committee approved a bill to de-annex the Buck Swamp and Falling Brook areas of the city of Goldsboro. The bill was then referred to the House Finance Committee.

Residents of the areas have been fighting the forced annexation by the city for years before finally losing in the courts.

The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Efton Sager and Rep. Stephen LaRoque, both Republicans.

More than a half dozen residents from the area made the trip to Raleigh Thursday to speak out in support of the bill.

"This is the worst possible example of municipal abuse of the state's annexation statute," said Bob Pleasants, a spokesman for the group.

Pleasants emphasized, in particular, how far away from the city center the area was and how rural the corridor that connected it to the city was.

"It's a mile-long track of farmland and woodland without one house or one business. Not one," he told the committee members. "And it's remained so since its annexation nearly nine years ago."

But the main reason for contesting the annexation, the opponents said, grew out of the city's failure to set up a sewer system in the area within two years of annexation, as required by state law.

Interim City Manager Tasha Logan said the delay in getting the sewer system installed was due to the lack of cooperation from area residents, which led to the sewer plans needing to be reconfigured.

"Part of the redesign was the result of citizens in the annexation area not wanting to work with the city of Goldsboro," she said. "We've had to negotiate new contracts with consultants. We've also had to redesign the sewer system. Instead of the city moving forward by either condemning properties or using eminent domain, we decided to re-evaluate how we were installing the system. We are close to working those things out."

Ms. Logan then invoked the language of the City Council's resolution against the bill, saying the proposed legislation "seeks to overturn a legally-enacted local decision."

State law permits forced annexation of an area if it meets certain geographic and population density criteria.

Ms. Logan also pointed out that the city had already spent $3,766,043 toward the implementation of services for the area.

But according to LaRoque, nothing has changed for residents.

"They've still got the same fire protection they had before," he said following the committee meeting. "Garbage is more expensive than it was before. Sewer has not been provided. As far as police protection, they already had the sheriff's department. They have not received any additional services, unless you want to count street lights, since they've been paying almost $2 million in taxes."

Pleasants asserted that the annexation was approved solely to grow the city's tax base and population. He also noted the exclusion of three houses associated with a developer from annexation within the strip of property that makes the Buck Swamp area contiguous with the city.

"Now his home and his mother's home are doughnut holes in Goldsboro," he said.

Ms. Logan explained that the annexation in which the city gained the property that connects it to the area, known as Phase XI, was a voluntary one, so the developer was allowed to mark exclusions. The exclusions and the direction of the city's growth drew criticism from committee members. Rep. Larry Brown called the annexation patterns "haphazard" and said they had no logical growth pattern.

Pleasants, before yielding, closed with a summary of his and his neighbors' issues with the annexation.

"How is it that a city can trample the rights of 1,100 citizens through an annexation that clearly violates the intent of the law, that uses tax payers as tools, that gerrymandered boundaries, that selectively excludes certain citizens and that grossly misses the mandated service that they were supposed to provide and still have annexation considered valid? How is that possible? It shouldn't happen, and it has down in Wayne County."

Following the hearing, Ms. Logan expressed concern about the precedent it could set for other annexed areas if the de-annexation bill was made law.

"If this one passes then does that open the door for other annexations that have passed to now be challenged?" she speculated, adding that regulations should drive the annexation reform, not the shrinking of city limits. "If reform needs to happen, then let us do it moving forward."

Pleasants said after the meeting that the City Council had grown out of touch with its constituents and was only out to pursue a revenue-building agenda.

"They have an agenda: to grow the population and get as much tax base as they can," he said. "In pursuing that agenda they give no consideration to those folks who have no vote. We have no say-so. We didn't vote for them. We can't vote for them."

Sager, a former Wayne County commissioner, said that in local government, sometimes the voice of the people can struggle to be heard.

"I'm not saying that's in all cases, but I have seen situations when it didn't seem like the people were heard," Sager said. "I'm not here to try to pick a fight with the city or have bad relations. This was a situation where that's the only choice they had was to come to the legislators."

Ms. Logan defended the city's decision, pointing out that making difficult decisions that advanced Goldsboro's goals was precisely what the officials were elected to do.

But LaRoque had sharp words for the city officials responsible for the annexation and the failure to meet the sewer system deadline.

"I point the finger directly at the mayor and the council and their lack of not only due diligence, but their lack of following through on a promise they made to these people," he said. "It was in the statute and they didn't do it, and to me, Goldsboro should not be able to annex anymore. Period. Because they have failed to follow through on what they have supposed to have done. They are the ones to blame and they should not be complaining to anyone about this issue."

If the bill is approved by the Finance Committee, it will then reach the House floor for a vote. If passed, it would need to be approved by the Senate before going to the governor for her signature.