Wednesday a game-changer for annexation in Tennessee

Gary B. Gray • Apr 2, 2014 at 9:27 PM

The way annexation works in Tennessee changed dramatically Wednesday.

In essence, HB 2371, sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, succeeded by an overwhelming margin, repealing annexation by ordinance and creating annexation by referendum.

The legislation also exempts land used for agricultural purposes unless requested by the owner. It also extends a moratorium on municipal annexations — other than those requested — to 2015 and requires the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations to study these and other state annexation issues until February.

House members Wednesday morning voted 85-4 in favor of the bill with five representatives present but not voting. That means 96 percent of legislators in that body were on board. The four representatives voting against the bill reside in Knoxville and Memphis. Both areas are exempt from the new rules, as are the state’s other two consolidated metro areas.

Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, was contacted briefly on the House floor by telephone, but he did not have adequate time to comment. He was in various committee meetings throughout the remainder of the afternoon.

A conflict between Johnson City’s right to annex land contiguous to its urban growth boundary in Washington County and Gray residents’ insistence their property rights were being violated led to a bill sponsored by Van Huss.

That bill turned out to be the genesis of consolidated legislation that swept through the Senate and the House, changing the rules of the annexation game statewide, pending Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature.

Washington County Commissioner Mark Larkey, one of three commissioners representing the 7th Commission District in which Gray is located, said passage of the legislation is a great victory for all property owners and a result of much hard work and determination by many individuals, especially the citizens of Gray.

“My fellow commissioners Mike Ford, Roger Nave, and I, began this journey in 2012 with a strong conviction that all property owners should have a voice in decisions that affect their homes and land,” he said. “I appreciate the tremendous effort by our local legislators to support us and leading the way in Nashville to pass this bill.”

On March 27, soon after the state Senate passed its version of the bill, sponsor Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, told the Johnson City Press “The days of annexation by ordinance are over.”

Crowe said that with three separate annexation bills working, including his version of Van Huss’s House bill that required referendums, he and fellow legislators decided to combine them into one bill — SB 2464. Legislation sponsored by Carter and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson was added. Language in this bill eliminates annexation by ordinance — period. Carter’s bill ultimately became the “delivery system” in this cooperative effort.

Finally, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, required further study of overall annexation issues by TACIR, as well as tasking the body with studying these issues further.

SB 2464 passed by a wide margin last week and went on to the House with Carter becoming the flag-bearer of all three bills.

Carter said legislators had talked for several days about using this strategy. With the consolidated bill waiting in the wings for Wednesday’s vote, the Van Huss bill was kept alive in the Senate in case Carter’s bill failed. Carter called it “a safety valve.” Obviously, that was not needed.

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said he was pleased to see the Watson amendment that agricultural land be exempted.

“That the exemption of farmland made it — which I requested — that’s key for Washington County,” he said. “Rusty Crowe, quite frankly, deserves credit for that. He helped communicate my request to Bo Watson. This will certainly change the landscape of Washington County, but I don’t see that this has to be a negative.

“I’m more and more aware of the opportunity this gives us as a county and two municipalities (Johnson City/town of Jonesborough) to sit down together. That’s what the original growth plan assumed we would do.”

House bill 2371 does the following:

- Removes a municipality’s authority to annex territory by ordinance upon its own initiative.

- Allows municipal annexation through May 15, 2015, under a hardship provision whereby the municipality would suffer substantial and demonstrable financial injury; provisions of a comprehensive growth plans or consent of the owner or owners of the property.

- Allows municipal annexation if formally initiated prior to April 15, 2013, and if the municipality would suffer substantial and demonstrable financial injury if such ordinance does not become operative before May 15, 2014. Municipality would be required to submit a petition prior to such date and the county legislative body may waive the restrictions by a majority vote.

- Extends TACIR study and requires a report by February 15, 2015. TACIR must make a review and evaluation of the efficacy of state policies on annexation and comprehensive growth plans submit its findings and recommendations to the speakers of the House and Senate by January 14, 2014.

- Removes laws governing annexation by ordinance for municipalities, except for plans of services, which requires the county mayor to notify appropriate departments within the county regarding information mayor received from the municipality.

- Nullifies any resolution or prosed annexation of any property being used primarily for agricultural purposes. Property being used primarily for this purpose may be annexed only with the written consent of the property owner or owners. This particular request will not require a referendum.

- Allows counties having a metropolitan form of government to expand the area of its urban services district using any method authorized by its charter.

- Allows municipalities to expand urban growth boundaries in accordance with its comprehensive growth plan provisions (state law) if the tract is contiguous to a tract of land that has the same owner and has already been annexed by the municipality; the tract is being provided water and sewer services; and, the owner of the tract, by notarized petition, consents to being included within the urban growth boundaries of the municipality.

The bill will take effect when signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, except the last two provisions, which take effect May 16, 2015.

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