NASHVILLE - State Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, says he will renew his push to require voters' consent before cities can annex their property, even as a state study panel says it may need more time for its annexation recommendations.
"Absolutely," the Hamilton County lawmaker said last week. "Only death will stop that. And then somebody else will just pick it up. I think the prospects [for passage] are excellent. People have woken up."
In this year's legislative session, Carter and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, sponsored a bill aimed at giving voters a voice in annexation. Carter, a former adviser to then-Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, cited a spate of annexations initiated by former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield.
Under the state's landmark 1998 Growth Policy Act, Tennessee cities can annex by ordinance with no voter input. Town and city officials enjoy that power and strongly opposed the Carter bill. As the legislative session expired, lawmakers asked the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to study and make recommendations on annexation and how the state's landmark 1998 Growth Policy Act has worked.
TACIR staff last week presented their 115-page study to commission members, who are drawn from the ranks of state and local officials. But TACIR's report included no recommendations on annexation, leaving the legislators, county mayor and city mayors at a loss. The Tennessee General Assembly session starts Jan. 14.
The commission chairman, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and others said the panel may have to request more time but will meet again Dec. 14 and seek areas they can agree on. Norris said TACIR members have until Nov. 6 to forward specific areas to consider.
Those are likely to include revisions in the planning process to require cities to update their urban growth plans. Another topic could be the current 15-year cap on counties' right to receive local option sales taxes and beer wholesale taxes from territory annexed by cities.
Several TACIR members questioned whether Carter's bill would do away with the entire Growth Policy Act. Carter said it would not and that he supports the planning process.
As part of the compromise this year, lawmakers agreed to freeze residential and farm annexations until May while TACIR studies the issue. Cities still may annex industrial property and areas where owners have asked to be annexed.
Norris said the moratorium would likely be extended if the TACIR recommendations are delayed.
During the meeting, a Chattanooga neighbor, Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, said many of the cities he knows of haven't had problems with annexation.
So why not just make the voter referendum requirement apply solely to cities with populations of 165,000 and above, Rowland asked. That would affect Chattanooga, Memphis and Knoxville. Nashville-Davidson County already has countywide metro government.
Kingston Mayor Troy Beets, a one-time county official, noted he's been on both sides of annexation battles. The 1998 law has worked pretty well, he said. And having a "one-size-fits-all approach" worries him, Beets added.
Carter said later that since he introduced the bill, he's heard of annexation flaps in Murfreesboro, the Tri-Cities and other cities.
The TACIR study noted that many states already require cities to get voter approval for annexations. Norris, a former Shelby County commissioner, believes TACIR members are more likely to support extending the moratorium than changing annexation laws to require referendums.
"In the alternative, he'll push the bill," Norris said of Carter. "And I think that's what people want."
Shelby County has fought any number of pitched battles with Memphis over the decades about its expansion plans. In fact, it was an exploding Shelby County controversy in 1998 that spurred passage of the urban growth law, which required cities to do 20-year maps showing where they might seek to annex.
Carter said voters deserve to have a say in annexation decisions.
"It's bizarre to think that politicians come to you and ask you to vote [for candidates], but when you come to them to ask them to be able to vote [whether to be in a city], they say, 'No, we know better.'
"The experts agree: the right to vote is a bad thing," Carter said sarcastically. "Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, all agreed it was a bad thing."
Margaret Mahery, executive director of the Tennessee Municipal League, which represents cities, said the planning law has worked. She pointed out that parts of Ooltewah escaped unwanted annexation by Chattanooga, though Carter said Collegedale snapped up some Ooltewah acreage after including the land in its 20-year growth plan.
Asked if TML would lobby against the Carter bill as it did this year, Mahery said she will do "whatever my board tells me to do. I assume at this point in time that be the situation [oppose]."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.