Lawsuit over Gray could change laws on annexation

Robert Houk • Jul 16, 2012 at 8:29 AM

Johnson City leaders have reached a stalemate on a major annexation in Gray. The city has also been named as a defendant in a lawsuit challenging the annexation of Gray. Alan Woodruff, who lives in Gray, is the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He is also a Democrat who will be challenging the Republican incumbent, Congressman Phil Roe, in November.

It will be interesting to see if candidate Woodruff brings up any of the property rights issues that attorney Woodruff raises in his lawsuit against the city. While annexation is typically a state and local issue, Woodruff seeks to question the constitutionality of state annexation law in a federal court.

That’s intriguing enough, but add to that the fact his opponent for Congress is a former city commissioner and mayor of Johnson City, and you can see where there may be room for some political theatrics on this topic.

The Gray lawsuit could have profound implications on Tennessee’s annexation law, which was amended by the state General Assembly in the 1990s in an attempt to provide property owners and municipalities with a better definition of what constitutes a reasonable annexation. Some of this came about as a result of the state’s Supreme Court decision in the so-called “Tiny Towns” case.

A couple of decades ago, a number of communities across the state decided to incorporate as a means of blocking annexation by larger cities and towns. That’s how the town of Unicoi came into existence. Residents there feared the city of Johnson City would not just stop at buying the Buffalo Valley Golf Course.

There was also talk in the 1990s of incorporating Gray as a means of halting Johnson City’s advancement into that community. That effort, however, ultimately fizzled.

The Tiny Towns dispute resulted in a state law requiring local governments to prepare “Smart Growth” plans that clarified the urban growth boundaries. It was hoped that the new law would discourage the kind of annexation fever that many of the city’s critics accused Johnson City leaders of suffering from decades ago.

Then-City Manager John Campbell was considered to be the most inflicted with this malady. At his urging, Johnson City commissioners stretched the city’s boundaries in so many directions that a map of the city looked like an octopus.

There was a reason, however, for Campbell’s annexation fever. Campbell wanted Johnson City to crack the 50,000 population benchmark that would allow the city to qualify for certain state and federal grants.

I also remember Campbell warning city commissioners that Johnson City needed to control the development of its gateways and corridors. He suggested the city should not allow a situation similar to the development of Colonial Heights on the doorsteps of Kingsport. At that time, the Model City had declined to take Colonial Heights into the city for fear of litigation.

Fast forward to today and we find Campbell — who is city manager of Kingsport — leading that city’s annexation of Colonial Heights. And, yes, the Model City is facing litigation as a result of some of those annexations.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

Recommended for You

    Johnson City Press Videos