Annex Bill Has Foes Hot
Pinewild annexation opponent Doug Aitken adamantly described the annexation bill adopted by an N.C. House Committee on Thursday as "a slap in the face."
The committee acted after three days of delay and the consideration of numerous amendments. The bill in its final form did not include a feature that Aitken and others had strenuously sought: a provision to give affected residents a vote before they were annexed.
But municipal leaders say such a provision would severely curtail annexations, which they say are necessary for towns and cities to grow in an orderly fashion.
The bill as passed by the committee does not extend the right to hold a referendum. Aitken said he was flabbergasted by the action of the committee. He had formed a statewide group called the Fair Annexation Coalition after becoming embroiled with the subject when he became involved with an effort by Pinewild residents to stop Pinehurst from forcibly annexing the gated community.
"It was a slap in the face," Aitken said by phone Friday. "They are trying to pass it off as reform. It was anything but that. I'm upset with the way it was done as well as why it was done. It was a set-up job."
Aitken, who was a member of a committee that studied annexation and made recommendations to the House, sat in the meeting room Thursday along with several other opponents of the bill in its present version. He said he watched as amendment after amendment was shot down by a straight-line party vote of 10 Democrats to seven Republicans.
"I was embarrassed by the lockstep partisanship I witnessed yesterday," Aitken said. "I was embarrassed to to watch it, that's how bad it was. If citizens of the state could have seen it, they would have been embarrassed. I don't know what is going on behind the scenes."
The annexation reform bill that finally advanced out of the committee offered several changes to the current law, including giving more oversight to annexation by the N.C. Local Government Commission, a step designed to assure that a municipality would be able to handle the financial burden of undertaking the 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 what really galled Aitken was that no provision for a vote by the affected residents made it into the final version of the bill.
'Wheeling and Dealing'
Aitken invoked scenes of smoke-filled back rooms where wheeling and dealing took place. He said that he heard that the North Carolina League of Municipalities had said the version of the law allowing any vote or input by residents affected by annexation would never pass through the committee. The league is a nonpartisan organization that includes more than 540 cities, towns and villages in North Carolina.
"What happened yesterday was that a citizen-funded lobbying group for the cities won out over the citizens of the state," he said.
Aitken said he was also amazed by a comment made by Rep. Earl Jones, a Greensboro Democrat, when it came to allowing the bill to be debated on the House floor.
"He said that democracy was chaotic enough," Aitken said. "The people in the room burst out laughing when he made that statement."
The way the bill is titled makes it impossible for any amendments to be added once it makes its way out of committees and onto the floor of the House for a vote, said Aitken.
Regardless of the outcome of the bill, 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 be retroactive, so involuntary annexations already in progress would be exempt. The village of Pinehurst adopted an ordinance to annex Pinewild 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.
The new bill, if passed, will replace a law on the books since 1959. The bill now goes to the House Finance Committee for consideration.
"I predict they will throw some amendments out there," Aitken said, "but there isn't going to be any change made."
As for the next step in the battle being waged by residents across the state, Aitken was at a loss for ideas. He said he had sent out an e-mail burst asking people involved with FAC to come up with a new strategy.
"I don't know (what to do next)," he said. "Obviously the strategy we selected failed and failed miserably. We need a new strategy."
Characterizing the vote as a partisan issue, he added: "As long as Democrats are in charge of the legislature it will never pass -- that would be the guess on my part."
Contact Hunter Chase at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story