TN's yearlong ban on annexation puts cities, towns in limbo

12:12 PM, Apr 25, 2013   |    comments
An annexation sign on Wilkerson Pike in Murfreesboro is seen in January 2010. / File / Gannett Tennessee
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Thompson's Station had hoped to bring an additional 500 acres of land into its borders this year, but it is expected to delay the plan because of a looming statewide moratorium on annexation.

In rural East Tennessee's Scott County, the potential halt on annexation has put the tiny city of Huntsville in a bind. The city is in the middle of approving a plan to bring about 30 new residents into city limits, longtime Mayor George Potter said. Now that is in limbo, too.

The yearlong ban, awaiting Gov. Bill Haslam's signature, is the end result of considerable debate in the General Assembly this year.

What started out as an attempt to require a public vote before a city could annex new residents turned into a two-year ban, and then the yearlong moratorium before lawmakers finally reached a deal on Friday.

Legislators unsuccessfully made attempts to exclude 17 counties, including Williamson, Rutherford and Sumner, from the moratorium.

"This bill has been amended down to the very bare bones," said Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, the bill's House sponsor. "There is nothing left, other than let's stop the pain until we can figure out how to do it and do it correctly."

Ultimately, Carter said, he still hopes Tennessee will allow residents to vote on whether to join a city. Tennessee is one of just three states that do not require a vote before annexation.

"On behalf of ma and pa in their home, ma and pa on their farm, I ask you to give them a chance to breathe and a chance to have a vote like they do in California, New York, Washington and Portland," he said.

The legislation was among a series of bills introduced this year aimed at changing the 15-year-old process for how cities annex territory and manage their growth.

Tennessee created urban growth boundaries and the current annexation process in 1998. The growth boundaries contain a city's border and the surrounding territories where local officials expect growth to take place over the next 20 years.

Cities annex land for a host of reasons. Sometimes to gain new residents or tax revenue. In other cases, to better handle future growth, reduce sprawl or better control traffic.

But annexations can also prove controversial among residents, since cities have higher tax rates, and Carter along with state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, sought to require the public vote.

The bill didn't prove easy to pass. As objections grew, lawmakers rewrote the bill.

First came the two-year moratorium and a requirement that the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs study the issue and report back with recommendations. Eventually, lawmakers settled on a one-year moratorium and the study.

The moratorium would last until May 15, 2014, and applies only to city-initiated annexation of residential and agricultural land. Cities can still annex commercial and retail areas, and residents petitioning to join a city can still do so.

It also includes a provision that if a city had formally introduced an annexation ordinance by April 15, city officials could petition their respective county commission for an exemption.

The House approved the bill 59-32, while Senators passed it 26-0.

Haslam will review the bill before deciding whether to sign it into law, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Carter represents a district in Hamilton County where Chattanooga has grown substantially over the past decade through annexation.

"All I am saying, at a time when all conservatives are irate with Washington (about government growth), why are we ignoring the greatest expansion on the average family in Tennessee?" Carter said in an interview.
Few battles

Some Middle Tennessee lawmakers and county and city officials say there haven't been major annexation battles in recent years.

Hendersonville Alderman Scott Sprouse said Wednesday that the moratorium is a "textbook case" of isolated problems turning into bad statewide policy.

"Annexation allows for proper planning for the community and can provide protection for buyers of new homes when a city has higher building and design standards than the county," he said.

In Thompson's Station, officials began examining the town's urban growth boundary over the past year. West of town, about 500 acres of mostly rural agricultural land was identified for inclusion in the city.

The town already considered excluding residents who did not wish to enter Thompson's Station, Town Administrator Greg Langeliers said.

"We will just shelve this annexation for now," Mayor Corey Napier said.

'A big deal'

For Potter in Huntsville, the moratorium is a big deal, and he said the Board of Mayor and Aldermen plans to push ahead with a third and final reading on the annexation ordinance today.

But Potter said if the moratorium goes through and the city has to appeal to the Scott County Commission, he's not sure the city will be successful.

"There will be no annexation if it is done by referendum," he said. "Most people aren't going to vote themselves in."

Staff writers Jamie Page and Josh Adams contributed to this report. Contact Duane W. Gang at 615-726-5982 or dgang@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @duanegang.

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