Gray residents waited outside the Johnson City Municipal Building before the city commission meeting Thursday night to protest the planned Suncrest Annexation. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations last week recommended the General Assembly extend a moratorium on municipal annexations of residential and agricultural property for another year to allow more time for an in-depth study of current laws.
Legislators kicked the initial study into gear in May. That move received mixed reactions from Johnson City and Washington County officials, who had been engaged in a tug-of-war of sorts over a move by the city to annex agricultural land in Gray.
City Manager Pete Peterson and County Mayor Dan Eldridge cringed when the moratorium went into effect, and both said they feared one possible outcome: a state-mandated, one-size-fits-all guideline that could trump their preference of letting local governments resolve local issues.
“This entire discussion across the state is being driven by two counties: Washington County and Hamilton County, but the issues are very different,” Eldridge said Tuesday. “We know what the situation is locally, and we should be allowed to deal with it locally. The first response in Washington County should not be ‘let’s run to Nashville and have them figure it out.’ ”
TACIR was tasked with reviewing the matter, and legislators expected to receive a report and recommendation a few months after the General Assembly convened in January. The moratorium was set to expire in May. However, should the legislature approve an extension, the moratorium on annexation without referendums would be extended to May 15, 2015.
Apparently, the sticking point with TACIR members is a split over a proposal to require public referendums on municipal annexations. There also is a call for more time to study who should get to vote in a referendum and how revenue generated from taxes on newly annexed property is shared with counties.
Eldridge said there have been many conversations since the moratorium went into effect between government officials and residents, and a common thread of concern is that referendums can potentially have negative affects on property owners.
“The problem we have here is there’s no real difference between annexation by referendum or by ordinance,” he said. “If you’re ‘John Q. Farmer’ with land in between what the city wants and what the land owners in a rural area vote to have annexed, you’re going to lose. We haven’t changed the situation for the elderly woman who owns a home, doesn’t need city services but gets caught up in an annexation. The only recourse is a lawsuit.”
In July 2012, a U.S. District Court judge denied a request by attorney Alan Woodruff and five Gray residents to impose an injunction on the state and Johnson City to freeze any city-initiated annexations until a lawsuit against such action was heard.
The suit was filed on behalf of Gray residents involved in both the Suncrest Annexation, which the Johnson City Commission already had approved, and the Bobby Hicks Highway/Airport Road Annexation, also in Gray. The latter ordinance was making strides when it unexpectedly died on second reading in a 2-2 vote with one commissioner abstaining.
Johnson City has not initiated any “forced” annexations since the suit appeared, planning officials said.
The Suncrest Annexation, which was comprised of more than 300 acres on or near Suncrest Drive, was the first phase of a planned 600-acre annexation which included land along the Bobby Hicks corridor. The city wanted to expand its jurisdiction starting from just northeast of the Gray Fossil Site Museum parking lot past Interstate 26 to a point about 4.5 miles northwest on Tenn. Highway 75.
Danny Sells, a Gray resident who spoke for Citizens to Maintain Gray during these annexations, has attended every TACIR meeting since June. He said Tuesday its staff has done a “tremendous job” of examining the state’s annexation laws.
“I feel members are in agreement that those being annexed should have greater participation in the process,” he said. “My thought is they are going through the process methodically, but they haven’t arrived at any specific recommendations. They really need to examine this more thoroughly, but I sense they would like to see local governments revisit their growth plans.”
Peterson did not respond to requests for comment initially made Monday and again Tuesday.
While legislation for the moratorium advanced early this year, he said he preferred keeping existing laws in place, though he did recommend that TACIR review the situation. Peterson said at the time the moratorium would impact growth patterns, economic development and the ability for cities to attract business. Johnson City also had just invested $20 million in its regional wastewater plant, primarily to support growth in Gray.
“Number one, they (TACIR members) have to get approval from the legislature,” state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said Monday after county commissioners filed out of their monthly meeting at the George P. Jaynes Justice Center. “If they need more time, obviously we need to have the legislature look closely at what’s going on. The first thing I’m going to do is go have a talk with the TACIR chairman and see why they want more time.”
TACIR is chaired by state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who last year asked the commission and its staff for a comprehensive study of Tennessee law governing annexation and urban growth. It’s the broadest examination of the issues since the General Assembly enacted a sweeping reform of the law in 1998 — Public Chapter 1101.
Under the act, cities must hold referendums on property they seek to annex outside their growth boundaries, but they can annex simply by passing an ordinance if the property is within its urban growth boundary. If this is shot down, municipalities may face losing potential tax revenues from expansion, but owners of family farms, rural landowners and others would be the ones putting a stamp of approval on the annexation.
Farm land may come out of Gray annexation plan