05/30/12 — Deannexation gets final OK

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Deannexation gets final OK

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on May 30, 2012 1:46 PM

The eight-year battle surrounding the involuntary annexation of the Buck Swamp and Salem Church Road area northwest of Goldsboro has come to a close now that the General Assembly has approved a law canceling that annexation outright along with eight other similar annexations across the state.

A 66-50 vote in the House on Tuesday means House Bill 5 will go into effect July 1, removing the Phase 11 area from the city limits along with annexed areas in Kinston, Rocky Mount, Asheville, Lexington, Wilmington, Marvin, Southport and Fayetteville.

Rep. Efton Sager (R-Wayne), who emerged as Phase 11 residents' deannexation champion, said he had received many notes of thanks from residents of the area for his efforts. Sager originally drafted a bill to free the area in 2010 and was a major supporter of the annexation reform laws.

Goldsboro City Manager Scott Stevens said the bill's passage came as a big blow, not only to Goldsboro, but to municipalities across the state.

"We basically have stopped involuntary annexation in this state," Stevens said, adding that he can't imagine any city or town managing to annex an area involuntarily under the new law.

The Goldsboro City Council was expected to discuss the impact of the deannexation on its budget today during a noon budget work session.

Opponents have voiced concern that could lead to cities that can't sustain themselves -- an argument Sager said has been overstated.

"The League of Municipalities has been using that tone for years," he said. "But we're one of just a few states that has involuntary annexation, and some of these states that don't have it are prospering real well."

Stevens also said he wanted to dispel talk that last year's reform law had been a compromise with municipalities. He said the reform law was agreed to only as an alternative to an annexation moratorium.

The Legislature's decision comes in response to a legal challenge by municipalities earlier this year as to whether an annexation reform law enacted in 2011 was constitutional.

Sen. Phil Berger, the Senate's president pro tempore, cautioned the cities that continuing to spend taxpayer dollars on legal fees to fight the law would result in the Legislature taking up older laws dealing directly with the contentious annexations during this year's short session. Those laws had originally been bundled with the reform law which installed a petition process requirement before any involuntary annexation occurred. A 60 percent return on that petition process would block the annexation and prevent the municipality from attempting to annex that area for three years.

One day before the petition count in Wayne County, a Wake County Superior Court judge struck down the law, supporting the cities' claims that its limiting of participation in the petition to property owners within the annexation area denied rights in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The state vowed to appeal that ruling, although the case was made superfluous by a second bill approved Tuesday.

That bill, House Bill 925, replaces the petition with a referendum that allows all registered voters of the proposed annexation area to vote on the involuntary annexation. Without a majority of votes in favor of the involuntary annexation, the city may not annex the area, nor can it attempt to annex it again for a period of three years. That bill still requires action by Gov. Beverly Perdue before it can become law, as she has 10 days to either to sign it or do nothing to make the legislation law. She could veto the bill but its approval margin -- 72-45 -- suggests it could override any attempted veto.

"The governor is concerned about the health of our cities and she will be reviewing the bill," Perdue spokesman Mark Johnson said.

That isn't so with HB 5, which, as a local law, is not subject to any veto. The bill, which frees Phase 11 residents from the city limits, also contains a temporary moratorium on annexation, preventing Goldsboro from attempting to annex the area for 12 years.

That time period could likely be changed, though, Sager said, if the law was vetoed by the governor. He said talks with Democrats had revealed a concern about the length of time and that, to override a veto, he believes his colleagues would be willing to reduce it by half.

The Phase 11 are was annexed in 2008 after a four-year legal battle. Legislators became involved when the city had failed to meet its state-mandated obligations to extend sewage service to the area within two years, leading to a handful of bills that eventually led to the reform and annexation cancellation bills.

Stevens said while the city was prepared to extend its sewer services and had spent $2.7 million on designs, sites and vacuum station work, the delay could be largely attributed to easement negotiation issues.

The city could have used its imminent domain powers to seize the easements to lay the sewer line in 60 days, he said, paying fair market value to property owners as determined by the courts, but declined, opting to negotiate with the property owners.

"It's generally seen as not very nice," he said, adding that, perhaps "Goldsboro did themselves a disservice in trying to be considerate."

Stevens said existing sewer customers would be on the hook for those expenditures. He downplayed the loss of tax revenue by the city due to the deannexation. The estimated $230,000 shortfall, he said, amounts to only a penny on the tax rate.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.