EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Houk’s column will return next week.
I had the opportunity to attend each of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovermental Relations hearings on the many annexation bills last year. These were some of the very best discussions I have experienced.
The members of TACIR were not all in agreement or the end result clear, but they openly and honestly discussed the issues. And I fully support TACIR’s request of additional time to look at the issues of annexation and growth policy in Tennessee.
It is also important to note the issue being considered by the General Assembly is more than annexation. Current law is called the Growth Policy Act of 1998. It creates a “comprehensive growth policy for the state” and will expire in 2018. Annexation is a part of that bill, but only one part.
In an article in the Johnson City Press covering a City Commission meeting Feb. 22, Press Staff Writer Gary Gray quotes City Manager Pete Peterson saying, “We need to provide more incentives for developers closer to the city’s core, which will help us keep the cost of services down, such as water and sewer” and “In light of legislation regarding annexation that could greatly affect us, we’re actually talking de-annexation — about limiting urban sprawl and how that can benefit the city.” Those statements could not be closer to the original intent of the Growth Policy Act of 1998 and can lower taxes.
Also quoted is Commissioner Jeff Banyas, saying “If it happens (where) we’re not allowed to annex, we should sue the state, because we’ve poured millions of dollars into infrastructure.”
Who is preventing the city from annexing? The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, which passed doesn’t prevent annexation. It only requires private landowners to be allowed to vote on whether they wish to have their property annexed. I also question the cost of infrastructure. The water system here is owned by Johnson City and the sewer system was purchased from the old County Utility System many years ago. If you have these services outside the city, you are charged twice the amount charged to city residents. I doubt Johnson City is losing money providing these services. Further, I doubt anyone really thinks just because they purchase a service from the city they should be annexed. During the Suncrest Annexation, the city took credit for repaving Suncrest Drive, but when mentioned it is a state road and federal stimulus money provided funds for the repaving, it admitted being reimbursed on the projects.
Another point often made is “requiring a referendum will kill growth in our area.” Personally, I feel our area will still be attractive to businesses, given our climate, recreational attributes, tax advantages, and most importantly, the people who live, work and buy here. But from an analysis standpoint, TACIR provided a draft report in October titled “Municipal Boundary Changes and Growth Planning in Tennessee,” which discounts any such statement on slowing growth. On page 37, under “Fiscal Impact of Annexation,” it goes to great lengths to compare various measurements of growth in all 50 states. After a thorough review, one is hard-pressed to point to any method of annexation as increasing or decreasing growth.
It is often said Nashville should not adopt a “one-size-fits-all” solution to annexation and all annexation issues should be resolved locally. This is just naïve in a representative democracy. If that were to work, we would not need a constitution; we could always depend on local officials to make the right decision, and 95 different approaches to annexation and growth would have jobs going just about anywhere — except Tennessee. These proposed changes no more prevent cities from growing than driving on the right side of the road or stopping at a stop sign prevents one from getting to their destination. The law just gets us there in ways that protect us and our neighbors.
The last item I wish to comment on is the Press editorial of March 2. It indicates requiring the referendum will cause city taxes to increase and annexing additional territory is the only way the city can support itself. The underlying message is the only way to keep your city taxes low is to double mine through annexation. I doubt city residents are really comfortable with this and it is certainly contrary to reasonable analysis. Growth isn’t simply annexing more land at a higher and higher cost to providing services. Growth policy is about good planning and making the city attractive to both business and residents. Going back to Feb. 22, the city manager is talking about making things more attractive to developers and keeping the cost of services down. That’s forward thinking, good growth planning and a much better approach than the high cost of “consumption” of land until there is no more.
I have been willing to discuss approaches other than a referendum. However, given the recently stated position of the City Commission, I am now convinced a referendum allowing landowners to vote their desires is the only way we will ever be respected.
The only improvement would be to exempt agricultural land from forced annexation. Simply, I want changes to the 1101 Act that recognizes I have property rights and give me the ability to know where the city is developing. That helps me make good decisions about my property. My neighbors and I are not against Johnson City or planned growth. I’ve seen my community grow for 60 years so growth in the future is not unexpected. We only expect these issues to be resolved with respect from both sides.
Danny Sells is a resident of Gray and a member of Citizens to Maintain Gray.