Johnson City officials say Van Huss annexation referendum bill would hamper development

Gary B. Gray • Feb 14, 2014 at 10:26 AM

The state’s House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Wednesday approved a bill sponsored by state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R- 6th, which mandates local referendums and lets property owners decide whether they want to be annexed into municipal Urban Growth Boundaries.

HB 590 now moves to the full House Finance, Ways & Means Committee. The term “forced” has been used by opponents of the current law, which allows certain annexations if procured by ordinance and involve property contiguous to existing municipal boundaries.

Should the bill clear all legislative hurdles, it could impact Johnson City’s plans for future growth, especially in and around Gray, where a lawsuit and strong opposition from agricultural land owners nearly two years ago helped shut down forced annexations.

“It’s been a long week,” Van Huss said Thursday. “I’ve done a lot of work and we have 55 legislators backing this.”

If Van Huss has 55 of the 99 House district representatives in his pocket, it would appear this is a done deal -— at least in the House.

“I would never assume this is going to go through, but I’m hopeful,” he said. “Tennessee is one of only three states in the country that allows forced annexation to occur. It is about time we eliminate this unjustified practice and give individuals the right to vote—something they should already have.”

Johnson City Manager Pete Peterson and Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge both say they do not want a state-mandated remedy, preferring instead freedom for local governments to resolve local issues.

Peterson said that if passed, the new law would cause Johnson City and other cities to lose their ability to grow, and counties would miss out on opportunities to recruit new development.

“This is about the only annexation bill that’s alive and moving right now,” he said. “It does not, however, address a lot of issues. Who gets to vote, the property owner or the tenant? What if the property owner doesn’t live in state? Do they get to vote? And who gets to vote when it involves a multi-family complex?

“The way the bill is worded, only the property owners would be allowed to vote. I think it makes sense that the entire city vote. It very well could be that all residents will be affected. The best decisions are made at the local level, because East Tennessee is nothing like West Tennessee, either geographically or politically.”

On July 5, 2012, the U.S. District Court in Greeneville granted five Gray plaintiffs an emergency temporary restraining order against Johnson City, halting what was to be a second reading by the City Commission of a more than 180-acre annexation along the Bobby Hicks Highway.

During the first reading, current Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and Vice Mayor Clayton Stout voted against the annexation, and the measure failed in a 2-2 vote with former Vice Mayor Phil Carriger abstaining because he had family in that area.

Johnson City has not pursued any annexations, other than requested annexations, since that time.

Carriger is running this year against state Rep. Matthew Hill for the Republican nomination for the District 7 House seat. Stout is challenging Van Huss in the May 6 Republican primary.

“It’s important in this conversation that it’s known I voted against that annexation,” Stout said Thursday. “I was very concerned about the people of Gray and their concerns. But it’s also important to remember that a lot of very smart people sat down years ago and figured out how an urban growth boundary should work, and that includes both city and county officials.

“This bill is largely about Hamilton, Sullivan and Washington counties,” he added. “I’m not a strong advocate of referendums. Are we going to have a referendum on everything? That’s why we elect people to go to Nashville. I believe that local people should control local issues.”

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 that included land along the Bobby Hicks corridor. The city wanted to expand its jurisdiction starting from just northeast of the Gray Fossil Museum parking lot past Interstate 26 to a point about 4.5 miles northwest on Tenn. Highway 75.

“Today, the only outlet for someone who gets caught in an annexation is for them to hire an attorney and take the municipality to court,” Eldridge said Thursday. “This bill won’t change that. I do support referendums, and I feel that unless agricultural use changes, that land should never be annexed. But the Legislature should not rush into a one-size-fits all solution.”

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations last year was tasked with reviewing the state’s Growth Policy Act (Public Chapter 1101, Acts of 1998). 1101 was assembled to resolve disputes by requiring local governments in each of the state’s 92 non-metropolitan counties to adopt 20-year growth plans limiting where future incorporations and annexations could occur.

A large number of bills that would have changed Tennessee’s laws on annexation and growth planning were considered during the 2013 legislative session, and HB 590 drew a great deal of attention.

Legislators approved TACIR’s recommendation to place a moratorium annexation without consent — particularly on land used primarily for residential or agricultural purposes — through May 15. TACIR later recommended extending the moratorium for another year, until bills, such as the one Van Huss introduced, are completely fleshed out.

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