The constitutionality of Johnson City’s annexation of an area of Gray and another pending annexation is being questioned by residents of the affected areas in a suit filed Sunday.
Alan Woodruff, an attorney who is running against First District Congressman Phil Roe this November, filed suit in federal court in Greeneville against the city regarding the recent annexation of the Suncrest Drive area of Gray and the city’s pending annexation of the Bobby Hicks Highway/Airport Road area.
The core argument in the suit is the question of unconstitutional vagueness, Woodruff said.
In the suit Woodruff cites several statutes related to annexation in Tennessee. One statute says in part that the party challenging an annexation has the burden of proving that an “annexation ordinance is unreasonable for the overall well-being of the communities involved; or the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens and property owners of the municipality and territory will not be materially retarded in the absence of such annexation.”
Woodruff said the statute does not define the terms “reasonable,” “well-being,” “health,” “safety” and “welfare,” and therefore these terms are vague and ambiguous.
“There is a doctrine in law that a statute is unconstitutional if it’s too vague,” Woodruff said Monday morning.
Another statute cited in the suit states that the municipality “shall have the burden of proving that an annexation ordinance is reasonable for the overall well-being of the communities involved.”
Woodruff said the statutes regarding annexation are contradictory.
The third claim in the suit is that prior to 1998 plaintiffs were entitled to a jury trial. Now the responsibility of deciding a challenge to an annexation is left to a judge or chancellor.
“And we’re saying that when the government wants to do something we’re entitled to a jury trial,” Woodruff said.
Woodruff filed an emergency motion Monday for a temporary restraining order to keep the city from going any further with the pending annexation. This motion stated in part that, “The Tennessee statutes establishing the grounds for contesting an annexation, the precise procedures required for such a challenge and the burdens of proof in such a challenge are ambiguous and contradictory and Plaintiffs are unable to ascertain the proper procedures for challenging the annexation and grounds for contesting the annexation.”
Listed as plaintiffs in the suit are Eric Henley, David Feathers, Randall Jessee, Richard Wagner and Scott Drumwright. Woodruff said four of the men own property in the recent annexation area and one man owns property in the proposed annexation area.
City commissioners approved in early May the annexation of the Suncrest Drive area of Gray. This was done after much opposition from Gray residents. In the end, about 220 acres that were in the original annexation plan were removed.
The second phase of the annexation of parts of Gray includes parcels of land in Gray along the Bobby Hicks Highway from Interstate 26 north to the Washington County/Sullivan County line.
The first of three required readings on this new annexation ordinance was heard May 25. A second reading is scheduled for Thursday. The final reading and vote is expected July 19.
Woodruff said the suit is only focusing on the annexations of Gray, but there could be implications for annexations across the state.
“Now if we win and the statute is held to be unconstitutional, that raises interesting questions about whether anybody can challenge a prior annexation,” he said. “Whether you can undo an existing... annexation which was duly enacted even under an unconstitutional statute raises a whole new set of questions.”
The plaintiffs in the suit are seeking a declaration of the previous annexation of Gray null and void, a finding that the statutes regarding annexation to be unconstitutional, to prohibit the proceeding of the second phase of the Gray annexation and attorney’s costs and fees.
A city spokesperson said via email that the city has not received notice of the lawsuit and therefore could not comment.