published Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Legislature could enter fray over annexation


by Cliff Hightower
Audio clip

Ron Littlefield

A bill being floated in the Tennessee Legislature to try to change how cities conduct annexation could face considerable opposition before any vote is ever taken, officials said Wednesday.

“It raises a red flag for me right now,” said Margaret Mahery, executive director for the Tennessee Municipal League.

State Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, have both filed bills in the general assembly that would curb the amount of power cities currently have to annex.

Rep. Cobb said Wednesday the bill has three essential elements. It would require a referendum for anyone wishing to be annexed, it would create an option of going to a jury trial, if a lawsuit is filed, and it would place the burden of proof for why the annexation is necessary on municipalities.

Currently, cities have the power to annex territory within their urban growth boundaries by referendum or by ordinance. The current law also states that a judge will make the final decision on annexation if a lawsuit is filed to try to stop annexation.

The way the law currently reads makes it almost an extension of “eminent domain” for cities, Rep. Cobb said.

“Sometimes it turns into an urban versus rural issue, and I anticipate that as well,” he said.

He said he anticipates opposition from the Tennessee Municipal League, along with representatives of cities currently annexing or thinking of annexing, which includes Chattanooga.

Rep. Cobb said the bill was filed in direct correlation with the annexations that Chattanooga has conducted over the last several months.

Sen. Watson said it would be a “difficult piece of legislation to pass, but I owe the citizen’s the debate.”

He said those being annexed virtually have no say in the matter. Public hearings are held and residents can file lawsuits, but he said the hearings are usually informational and lawsuits are costly.

“These types of suits are extremely expensive, they are long and drawn out and, in most cases, they lose,” he said.

Ms. Mahery said Wednesday that the bill would essentially “tie the hands” of 347 Tennessee cities, some of which need annexation power for industrial development reasons.

“Sometimes, we are too reactionary to a situation that can affect 347 cities,” she said.

Mayor Ron Littlefield said Wednesday that the current legislation for annexation was drafted by the general assembly in the 1990s and “hashed out” at length during that time. He said everyone agreed it was an appropriate way to annex because it created urban growth boundaries and was supposed to end bickering between cities and counties on what could be annexed.

He said it was an “age-old fight” and he expected some type of state legislation to be pushed.

“Someone does this almost every legislative session,” he said.

A fiscal note attached to the bill says it would cost municipalities more than $100,000 to hold elections for referendums. It also noted an additional cost for trials by jury of around $1,800.

Sen. Watson said cities can spend money as well on expensive lawsuits in annexation.

CLOSER TO HOME

Other municipalities in Southeast Tennessee that are looking or have looked at annexation include Athens and Cleveland.

Athens is currently considering annexation of areas along Highway 305 to Exit 52 on Interstate 75. Cleveland has been looking at updating its urban growth boundary and also proposed some annexation of East Cleveland over the summer, said Mayor Tom Rowland.

But in the case of the east Cleveland annexation, the city held public hearings and decided not to go through with taking the area into the city limits, he said.

“The residents did not want to be annexed, so we yielded to them,” he said.

He said the proposed legislation in the general assembly, if enacted, would “destroy” the current way cities annex.

“You shouldn’t put restraints on all cities,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve abused annexation at all.”

Athens City Manager Mitchell Moore said everyone agreed 10 years ago that the current law was a good way to manage growth. If the problem lies with how Chattanooga is conducting annexation, then maybe legislators should handle that alone, he said.

“If it’s a Chattanooga problem, then maybe they need to make it a local bill,” Mr. Moore said.

ANNEXATION BILL

A bill, filed by state Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, changes three things in the annexation process. They are:

* A referendum would be required for any annexations by municipalities

* A jury by trial could be an option

* Burden of proof would fall on the municipalities conducting annexation

Source: House Bill 2429

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