Annex Reform Crafted
A state House committee is expected to take up proposed legislation to reform the involuntary annexation laws this week.
Those pushing for changes, including Pinewild resident Doug Aitken, are asking the state legislature to give affected residents a vote before being annexed. But municipal leaders contend that would effectively end such annexations, which they say are necessary for towns and cities to grow in an orderly fashion.
Aitken, who formed a statewide group called the Fair Annexation Coalition, cut his teeth on the subject when he became involved with an effort by Pinewild residents to stop Pinehurst from forcibly annexing the gated community. He was in Raleigh Thursday while a House committee was attempting to cobble together a new law to replace the one that has been in effect since 1959.
"It's a very complicated law," he said Friday. "I told people on the committee that they could make it a one-page bill -- allow the affected people to vote."
Whatever happens with the new attempt to restructure the law as it makes its way through myriad committees, debates, votes and reshaping, it won't help Pinewild in its showdown with Pinehurst. The new version of the law, if passed by both the House and Senate, would not go into effect until Oct. 1, and involuntary annexations already in process would be exempt.
Right now it is in the House Judiciary II Committee, which has scheduled a debate and possibly a vote, Tuesday. There are 26 amendments to the bill that will be debated by the committee Tuesday.
The village of Pinehurst adopted an ordinance to annex Pine-wild effective June 30, but it is unlikely to occur then, since lawsuits in state and federal courts are pending. Several other communities across the state are also fighting involuntary annexation.
Aitken served on a committee appointed last year by the House to study the law and provide input. He prepared several amendments to be presented by committee members during next Tuesday's debate on the compromise bill.
"We would like to put some guts back in the bill," he said. "This bill is better than the current law. It is a step in the right direction."
The compromise bill offers several changes to the current law, including oversight provided by the N.C. Local Government Commission. The commission would have to approve any proposed annexation. There are also limits on how much territory could be annexed, penalties for failing to provide essential services within a three-year time period and more advanced notice to the affected property owners.
But Aitken is still pushing to let affected residents have a say through a referendum.
"There is nothing in there that gives any voice in any way, shape or form to the citizen," he said. "They are making decisions on our wallets and our lives. I expressed to the committee our distress at that. We are trying to figure out a way for the citizens affected to participate."
Aitken has studied the way that various states handle annexations, and he believes there are ways to let people be involved even if it falls short of holding a vote.
He described a concept of a local boundary board, used by many states in different models or formats that give affected residents a voice. It would provide oversight. The board would consist of two representatives appointed by the city, two representatives appointed by the county and three residents (one from the city, one from the county and one from the area being annexed).
"This way the city, county and citizens have a voice," he said.
Aitken said he and the many other people across the state who are involved in the fight to change the law aren't going away. He admits the group is trying to tone down the rhetoric as it pursues the cause, but he also says he is waiting for someone to offer him a "rationale" for denying residents the right to vote on the process.
"I have asked where is the rationale for you denying the vote," he said. "The only reason they can give me is that when you vote, you will vote against it because you don't want to pay higher taxes. The League (of Municipalities) say we don't want a vote, we want a veto. I say let the majority decide."
He has presented statistics to the House committee showing that before 1959, 60 percent of annexations put to vote were passed. He also pointed out that today 85 percent of annexations are voluntary, leaving just 15 percent of annexations falling under the forced category. That is why he and others against involuntary annexation are still pushing for a vote.
"I told the committee yesterday (Thursday), 'We're not going away,'" Aitken said. "They're trying to throw us a bone. If they think they are tired of us now, they haven't seen anything yet. I hope they don't think we are going away. It is that important."
Contact Hunter Chase at 693-2478 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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