Raleigh, N.C. — On the first day of the short session, the Senate held two committee meetings to fast-track legislation that would make new, more stringent changes to the state's annexation law.
Last year, the General Assembly passed an Annexation Reform package, H845, that made a major change in the state's involuntary annexation law: it gave property owners in an area to be annexed the power to stop the process if 60% of them submitted petitions against it.
At the time the law was passed, nine cities had annexations underway. The cities took the state to court over it.
In March 2012, a Wake County judge found the provision unconstitutional. According to the judge, the petition amounted to an election, and the state's constitution forbids using the ownership of property as a requirement for voting.
Today, the Senate rolled out its answer to the ruling in two bills.
One, House Bill 925, makes three changes to the 2011 law:
- Instead of a petition, cities would have to hold an actual referendum election on the annexation
- The election would be open to all registered voters who live in the area, not just landowners.
- And the threshold for disapproval of the annexation would be lowered from 60% to just 50%.
If an annexation is rejected, cities would have to wait three years before putting it to a vote again.
Senator Buck Newton, R-Wilson, sponsored the bill. He said it would put an end to the litigation over the constitutionality of last year's law. And he blasted cities for "wasting taxpayer money" to take the law to court in the first place.
Tony Tetterton with the Fair Annexation Coalition was pleased, but a bit surprised by the turn of events. He said the Coalition would have preferred to restrict the vote to property owners.
"We were looking for a more happy medium," Tetterton said. "We got a little more than that in that we got a vote. We really weren't expecting that."
"Obviously we're not displeased by that," he added.
The second bill goes even further. House Bill 5 stops the nine litigated annexation projects by legislative fiat. Those cities would be forbidden from trying to annex those areas again for 12 years, instead of 3.
Newton said the 12-year ban was the "consensus" lawmakers reached to give residents in those areas a breather.
"They’ve been yo-yoed around and run through the wringer for years and years and years, and they’ve paid a lot of money out of their pockets to fight this every step of the way," Newton said. "It’s time for them to have a break."
"We could have done it permanently," Newton added. "Spaghetti dinners every month to raise the money to pay their lawyers through all this? It was time to take them off the hook."
Kelly Kukura with the NC League of Municipalities says the 12-year ban is just a way to punish the cities who dared to sue the state.
"I don't think it's a good idea for legislators to set policy that is going to impact the state for a very long time to come based on anger or some misguided sense of retribution," she said. "That's not why we elect our legislators."
Kukura called the referendum rewrite "patently unfair" because it allows a minority - voters who would be annexed - to overrule the majority of voters in a city.
She said cities need to have the power to manage growth in a balanced way, and making that more difficult will hurt economic development. "Particularly now," added Kukura, "when we have such a need for attracting new employers, new industry, and for dealing the quality of life issues that we have across the state given the economy."
The two bills are scheduled for Senate floor roll-call votes Thursday and next Monday. They would then move to the House.