As cities step up annexation efforts, citizens rebel

Published 2:53 pm Friday, December 11, 2009

Editors Note: The following was written by Lee Raynor, a contributor to Carolina Journal.

Mine (pronounced Miney) Marshall and her late husband built their Lenoir County home 46 years ago. Now, shes afraid shell have to sell the tidy brick bungalow and move into an assisted living center. Marshall and her neighbors are targets in a forced annexation plan underway today in Kinston.

I live almost from hand to mouth, the 91-year-old woman said. (Annexation) would cost me so much money. My taxes would go up. I just wont have any extra money. I dont know if Ill even have enough. How am I going to take my pills to stay alive?

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Marshall lives in one of three contiguous areas Kinston leaders want to bring into the city limits. The neighborhoods are comprised mostly of residents with limited incomes. The combined properties would form a land bridge to the affluent Falling Creek area, the primary target for Kinston, and the next area slated to join the city involuntarily. Residents took their case to court in November and expect a decision from the judge later this month.

North Carolina is one of about a half-dozen states with involuntary annexation laws heavily favoring municipalities. Several bills to modify existing statutes are making their way now through the General Assembly. Most are opposed by the powerful N.C. League of Municipalities.

Towns and cities use annexation to manage growth, said Margot Christiansen, public affairs director for the league, and ensure that everyone who benefits from city services contributes to the expense of those services.

One complaint of property owners who face hostile annexation is that they are not allowed to vote for the city or town leaders who took their land. Christiansen rebuts the complaint. She says state representatives and senators set annexation laws and all North Carolina citizens can vote for legislators.

Cathy Heath, chairman and director of Stop N.C. Annexation Coalition, said as many as 13 annexation cases were introduced in eastern North Carolina since 2006. The practice has become much more common during the last two or three years, she said.

Several cases are active now, including in Rocky Mount, Kinston, Wilmington, Oak Island, and Raleigh. A case in Wilmington in April became fiery after several dozen complainants were locked out of city hall during a council annexation discussion. State law requires municipal officials to hear all statements from people living in areas to be annexed.

All Wilmington had to do was entertain a motion to continue the meeting until the next meeting day, annexation attorney James Eldridge said. People could have come back. The city could have easily arranged that.

Eldridge is considered an expert in fighting involuntary annexation. He has handled a number of cases across the state, and is involved now in court cases against Kinston and Wilmington. In the Wilmington fight, he represents about 3,300 residents and many businesses in the Monkey Junction area, just south of the current city limits. That annexation would add 950 acres to Wilmingtons boundaries. Eldridge expects the case to be in court early next year.

Southport is in the midst of annexing about 170 acres and 112 properties along N.C. 211 and the Dosher Cutoff. The city originally intended to take a much larger area, including a business corridor at N.C. 211 and Long Beach Road. Oak Island, however, made the first move toward annexing the land and state law backs the early bird.

The Oak Level Community Against Forced Annexation has been fighting Rocky Mount for more than a year. Residents went to court earlier last spring to appeal the citys plans. Their claim is that the city has not met all the state annexation requirements. The lawsuit is expected to be heard this month.

Annexation will be financially devastating to the people who will be victimized in the future, Heath said. In most cases, property taxes would double. Homeowners would be required to install city sewers and water lines, even if their septic systems and wells are in good condition. The costs could be tens of thousands of dollars, she said.

On the other hand, said Kinston City Manager Scott Stevens, county residents use municipal services without sharing the maintenance and upkeep of features such as city parks, athletic fields, and golf courses.

Its not a huge deal, but city residents pay to have these things; people outside the city do not. They pay a fee for programs, but that only covers referees and uniforms, not the facility. Annexation by cities in general assures the fiscal health, revenue, and population of cities. Its fiscally fair to all citizens of the city.