‘Zero annexations in progress’ as city prepares for lawsuit

Gary B. Gray • Jul 6, 2012 at 9:40 PM

Annexation, one of Tennessee’s oldest and most common methods of dealing with the problems of urban and metropolitan growth, is a subject some people living near Johnson City say they downright fear.

On the other hand, state law (Section 3 of Public Acts 1998, Chapter 1101) expressly recognizes annexation as a legitimate municipal growth tool. It authorizes Johnson City to annex by ordinance if the property is within its Urban Growth Boundary. The city’s Suncrest Annexation, and another proposed annexation in Gray that failed after a tie vote Thursday, both met that qualification.

Now, a potential federal court case against the city is looming. The possible outcome of each extreme is this: it could lead to Tennessee’s rethinking of what is constitutional and rule the Suncrest Annexation and all future city initiated, ordinance-driven annexations null and void, or it could fall flat.

Odds are the city would return to the drawing board should that happen. It’s well known that Gray has been identified as a valuable corridor that could draw development and tax revenues, as well as allowing Johnson City to metaphorically loosen its belt to allow for future growth.

Gray attorney Alan Woodruff and five plaintiffs named in a suit against the city are anxiously waiting for the U.S. District Court in Greeneville to officially issue a temporary restraining order that for 10 days would halt any action on any proposed city initiated annexation. During those 10 days, the judge may or may not issue a preliminary injunction, which forces the city to stop all annexation proceedings until the injunction is lifted or a final order is issued.

The Johnson City Press requested information Friday from the city’s Community Relations Department regarding any future plans to annex land in Gray and how many city initiated annexations were in progress.

“Currently there are zero annexations in progress,” Development Services Department Director Angie Carrier said in an emailed response. “We have no additional areas proposed for annexation.”

City Manager Pete Peterson was not immediately available.

Meanwhile, the “emergency motion for a temporary restraining order without notice and preliminary injunction” was meant to get Judge Leon Jordan’s attention, Woodruff said Friday.

“There’s technically no emergency right now, but maybe there is,” he said. “Maybe they’ve gone right back to working on another plan. I consider any action by the planning office to be proceeding on an annexation.”

Woodruff, a Gray resident, filed his pleadings in federal court on July 1.

He is representing Eric Henley, David Feathers, Randall Jessee, Richard Wagner and Scott Drumwright. Henley owns property in the proposed (Bobby Hicks Highway/Airport Road), and now defeated annexation. The other four men own property in the recently annexed Suncrest area. The attorney says the law is constitutionally hazy about a municipality’s right to go forward with uninvited annexations.

The aforementioned Urban Growth Boundary actually has its roots in Washington County’s comprehensive growth policy plan that is, in theory, supposed to guide and direct new development in the county.

The county-wide growth plan identifies three distinct areas in the county: Urban Growth Boundaries, areas that contain the corporate limits of a municipality and the adjoining territory where growth is expected; Planned Growth Areas, areas outside incorporated municipalities where growth is expected and where new incorporations may occur; and Rural Areas, territory not within one of the other two categories that is to be preserved for agriculture, recreation, forest, wildlife and uses other than high-density commercial or residential development.

Yes, the county is a player. Without its participation, there would be no defined Urban Growth Boundary. And more than a few Washington County Commissioners have sat in on the recent annexation meetings. Some have felt a bit more slighted than others — mainly due to their opinion that Johnson City is being overly aggressive in an attempt to grab new tax revenues.

Commissioner Mark Larkey, who represents the county’s 7th District in which Gray is situated, said he was pleased the City Commission responded to the pleas of his constituents affected by voting down the recently proposed annexation.

“It is important for the city and county to jointly plan for the growth coming to the Gray area, but always keeping our focus on the needs of the community,” he said. “Annexation represents a tax increase for those annexed. In today’s economy, it is important that forced annexations never occur. Annexation is only appropriate when the property owner desires to be part of the city.”

Still, Johnson City and other municipalities enjoy a streak of court rulings that have given them the nod, including this Tennessee Supreme Court opinion in Collier v. City of Pigeon Forge that dates back more than 30 years: “In a word, annexation gives a city some control over its own destiny [the court’s emphasis.] …The failure of a city to extend its boundaries to embrace contiguous areas of growth and development is an abdication of responsibility. The time to annex is in the incipient stage of growth, lest the basic purpose of annexation be frustrated and the public interest suffer by the annexation of substandard areas.”

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