Johnson City’s push to annex property along Bobby Hicks/Airport Road in Gray died a surprising death Thursday when, with litigation on the matter pending, commissioners voted 2-2 with one abstaining.
In municipal parliamentary parlance: deadlock is failure.
Gray residents left the Municipal and Safety Building clapping and cheering while Mayor Jeff Banyas, obviously not amused by the outburst, pounded the mayoral gavel a handful of times as the microphone amplified his disapproval.
It was first thought there would be no second reading or public hearing of the ordinance. The U.S. District Court in Greeneville had delivered to the city attorney an emergency temporary restraining order against Johnson City. But Knoxville Judge Leon Jordan, to whom not only a restraining order but also a suit against the city has been assigned, had not yet offered up his signature.
“We’ve got business to conduct,” Vice Mayor Phil Carriger, who abstained from the vote because he has family living in the potentially affected area, pronounced before the meeting. “There’s no reason why we would not go forward with this.”
A public hearing ensued.
“Who tells you what properties to choose?” asked Eric Henley, owner of an auto repair shop in Gray and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city. “I just wonder who tells you. Who are they? What criteria do you use?”
“We don’t need to come up with any,” Banyas snapped back. “You can talk with Mr. Peterson (City Manager Pete Peterson).”
Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin, as is his nature, combed through statistics and weighed the merits of the annexation. Yes, it would increase taxes. Yes, it is a key corridor for Johnson City. On the other hand, he said the property about to be annexed did not hold a high percentage of land ready for development, and the city would be paying off its initial investment over 15-16 years.
He then turned to Peterson and asked for an opinion.
“Our legal counsel has advised that because of litigation, we should limit our comments,” he said.
Banyas and Commissioner Jane Myron voted to move forward. Commissioners Van Brocklin and Clayton Stout voted no. Carriger abstained.
This does not mean annexation in Gray is over. It means only that this particular plan was voted down.
But some questions were raised after the votes, as were some tempers.
“I do not like people pointing their finger at me,” Gray resident Grady Vago said about Banyas. “Everybody keeps talking about this ‘thing.’ Someone has a major interest in development out there.”
On July 1, attorney Alan Woodruff, a Gray resident and Democratic candidate for Republican Congressman Phil Roe’s 1st District House seat, filed suit against Johnson City in federal court.
Woodruff, is representing Henley, David Feathers, Randall Jessee, Richard Wagner and Scott Drumwright. All but Drumwright own property in the recent Suncrest Annexation; he owns property in the proposed annexation area that was voted down Thursday.
Apparently the proposed annexation no longer is in play. But should the court grant the restraining order, it would stop any further action on the Suncrest Annexation, pending a final ruling on a suit seeking recourse on that move. That ordinance passed in May.
“Nothing surprises me,” Woodruff said after the vote. “The lawsuit is still alive because of the Suncrest Annexation.”
The plaintiffs are seeking a finding that the city’s annexation rights are constitutionally vague, a declaration that the Suncrest Annexation is null and void as well as attorney fees and costs.
Woodruff claims there are gray areas regarding the city’s constitutional right to go forward with uninvited annexations — both the Suncrest Annexation, which passed in May, and the now-defunct Bobby Hicks Highway/Airport Road Annexation, which made it only through a first reading.
State law places the burden on municipalities to prove that “an annexation ordinance is reasonable for the overall well-being of the communities involved.” In so many words, the judge will be reviewing Woodruff’s claim that Johnson City’s annexations of Gray will not enrich lives but instead constitute an exercise in power not given to the city by law.
The process during the first annexation was a long one, but affected property owners, as well as those with adjacent property, stuck with their game plan, which included community meetings, protests and making themselves heard at public meetings.
“It’s (Johnson City) an evil empire,” Gray resident Ron Maden said in April during the first annexation process, which drew angry, sign-carrying crowds to the Municipal & Safety Building and commission chambers. “There’s nothing democratic about it.”
The city has consistently said the annexations are about making way for future growth.
While Banyas is responsible for initiating the removal of all agricultural land from the Suncrest Annexation, he favors annexation itself.
He consistently has pronounced himself a “strong proponent” of annexation and reiterated that Johnson City has spent millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements in the Gray area. He also has pointed out that this is the natural direction of growth for the city and that Gray is a gateway to Johnson City from the airport.
The proposed annexation also is within the city’s Urban Growth Boundary — a plan that has not been challenged until now.