published Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Annex freeze could continue in Tennessee: Panel wants another year to study plan

NASHVILLE — Split over a proposal to require public votes on municipal annexations, a state panel this week recommended that Tennessee lawmakers extend a state moratorium on adversarial annexations for a year for more study.

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations OK'd the recommendation last week as its members -- comprising legislators and city and county mayors -- bogged down on a variety of thorny issues.

Lawmakers last session passed the moratorium on cities' forced annexations of residential and farm property and asked TACIR to study annexation and related matters under the state's landmark Urban Growth Planning Act. The ban doesn't apply to annexations of commercial and industrial property or cases where property owners seek to come into a town or city.

The moratorium resulted from legislation sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson. Their bill requires public referendum votes on nonconsensual residential and farm annexations. Under the 1998 growth act, cities must hold referendums on property they seek to annex outside their growth boundaries. But inside the boundaries, cities may annex simply by passing an ordinance.

Towns and cities mobilized last session and opposed Carter's and Watson's bill, charging it would harm cities by making it harder to annex property key to economic growth. Carter and Watson argued residents should have a say-so when cities come after their property.

Despite TACIR's vote, Carter said he intends to renew his push in the Legislature next month.

"They can beat me, but they're going to have to do it in front of God and everybody," the lawmaker said.

During Wednesday's meeting, TACIR members debated changes in the Urban Growth Planning Act, which required cities to file plans showing where they might annex over the next 20 years.

Cities say the law has worked well. Critics differ. In punting the issue to TACIR, lawmakers placed a moratorium on certain annexations until May 15, 2014. TACIR wants an extension to May 15, 2015, as it studies such issues as who should get to vote in a referendum, how cities de-annex property, how taxes are shared with counties when it comes to newly annexed property and other issues.

TACIR Chairman Mark Norris, the Senate Republican majority leader from Collierville, said he thinks the panel has done a "good job" of identifying issues.

"A lot of these, when you start talking about who votes, how they vote, the reimbursement by municipalities, I mean, there's a lot of stuff there," he said.

Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Bragg said referendums should be restricted to property owners. That drew concern from other TACIR members.

During the meeting, House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, cited a letter from Middle Tennessee city and county mayors in which they voiced fears about the effects would-be changes might have on the region's explosive job-generating growth.

"This is the economic growth [driver] here in Tennessee," Sargent said of the counties surrounding Nashville. He noted cities and counties in the area work together well as opposed to some areas of the state like Hamilton County, Carter's home county.

Carter, who sits on TACIR, moved to recommend just the referendum to lawmakers. It failed for lack of a second although at least two legislative members were sympathetic.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, moved to extend the moratorium for another year to give TACIR time to work through issues.

McNally said while he favors Carter's referendum bill, "I don't think it would pass this committee [TACIR]." The senator said he believes "the public does have a right to participate" in annexation decisions. Commission members on a voice vote passed McNally's resolution to delay final recommendations and request the moratorium's extension.

Following the meeting, Carter said he sought to separate his initiative from a growing morass.

"There are a lot of complicated issues," said Carter, an attorney and one-time top adviser for former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey. "What we've been successful in doing is taking the very simple concept of the people have a right to vote, and we've mixed it in a blender with truly legitimate complicated issues.

"And now, we can't see why we came here to begin with. I want to separate it out, give a right for a referendum and continue the other matters on for another additional year to consider. I was a little bit shocked I didn't get a second [on his motion] to be honest with you."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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