(WBIR - Knoxville) As the 2014 legislative session wrapped up last week, recaps of the bills passed focused on topics such as Common Core testing, wine in grocery stores, and limits on sales of over-the-counter cold medicines.
One piece of legislation that may have flown somewhat under the radar has a major impact on a hot-button issue that has grabbed headlines for six decades in Tennessee. Last week the governor signed a new law that effectively puts an end to "forced annexation."
Forced annexation allowed city officials to simply pass an ordinance to acquire new property that expanded the city's limits and its tax base. The town or city could claim the land whether the people living on the property wanted to join the city or not.
The new law requires a referendum in which people who live within the proposed annexation area vote in favor of joining a city. Lawmakers hailed the overwhelming support for the bill in both the Senate and House as a victory for property owners' rights.
Towns and cities across Tennessee all seemingly have histories of protests from angry residents who opposed annexation. Had the new law been in place years ago, the region would likely be a lot different.
For example, there's a chance there would be no incorporated Town of Farragut. The longtime community in west Knox County only chose to incorporate in 1980 because its residents feared their property would be annexed by an ever-expanding Knoxville.
If there was ever a poster-boy for the debate over forced annexation, it was former Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe. During Ashe's time in office between 1987 and 2003, the city annexed more than 26 square miles of property via ordinances.
Ashe told WBIR on Monday that he believes over time, the new law will work to the detriment of cities in Tennessee.
"If the City of Knoxville had not been able to grow after 1920, we would still be eight square blocks around Gay Street," said Ashe. "This clearly puts the brakes on the growth of cities. I would submit over a period of time it will either encourage a metropolitan form of government or slow down the growth of cities."
In many cases, people were not eager to join the city limits because it meant paying city taxes. Ashe believes annexed areas have gotten a return on their tax investment.
"I think cities in Tennessee have been the engines of growth and progress in the state," said Ashe. "I hope nobody gets into a car accident, but if they do it is city police who come to the scene. There's a cost to that."
Now it will be the people who can decide if they want to merge with a municipality and have those services covered by taxes. Business districts that want to join a city for access to services can still do so without a referendum. The new law extends the moratorium on forced annexation until next May when it will be officially eliminated.
Ultimately, it puts an end to a contentious practice that has created a sore spot for many Tennesseans during the last six decades. Nonetheless, Ashe believes there are major drawbacks with the new law that will not be immediately visible.
"This new law will slowly choke off the ability of cities to provide the level of services that many people want. I think it will show up 15 to 20 years from now and frankly nobody will remember this was passed," said Ashe.