Bill requiring vote before annexation clears House

Gary B. Gray • Feb 25, 2014 at 9:26 PM

The state House voted overwhelmingly Monday to support 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 established municipal growth boundaries.

Representatives in Nashville voted 78-8 with five present but not voting, sending the companion bill SB 869 to the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

The term “forced” has been used by opponents of current law, which allows certain annexations if procured by ordinance and involve property contiguous to predetermined Urban Growth 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.

Van Huss has worked with state Rep. Mike Carter, R–Ooltewah, to give Tennesseans the right to vote against annexation if they felt it was not in their best interest.

“Quite a few Washington County commissioners called and congratulated me last night (Monday),” Van Huss said. “It surprised me that we got that many votes. There were quite a few members of the House that were happy this passed. The right to vote is a freedom I fought for in Iraq and now in Nashville. The citizens of Tennessee have had annexation forced on them for long enough.”

The legislation would go into effect if passed by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.

“This bill is a victory for the people of Washington County and I am proud of Representative Van Huss for championing this much-needed legislation,” said state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-7th. “I am excited to continue working towards annexation solutions for both county and city residents and look forward to seeing this legislation implemented across Tennessee.”

City Manager Pete Peterson and County Mayor Dan Eldridge have both said they do not want the state to mandate a remedy, preferring instead freedom for local governments to resolve local issues.

Eldridge, who does support referendums and maintaining agricultural land, also says the legislation won’t stop people who get caught in an annexation from suing municipalities.

Peterson flatly opposes the change. He consistently has said the state should not impose blanket legislation statewide, since regions across the state differ geographically and politically.

In 2012, a federal court 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.

“I refuse to let this campaign be centered around this issue,” Stout said Tuesday. “There’s a lot more at stake.”

Stout is not a big fan of referendums, but he has said he prefers allowing local people to control local issues. He also has complimented city and county officials who worked on the local Urban Growth Boundary currently in place.

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.

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, were completely fleshed out.

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