Around the Region: N.C. residents use new law to block annexations

Published 5:09 pm Friday, June 24, 2011

Some North Carolina residents are already organizing petitions to take advantage of a new law that gives them more power to block involuntary annexations by cities or towns.
The North Carolina General Assembly approved last Saturday a major reform of the state’s annexation law, which now allows communities to block an annexation if 60 percent of property owners sign a petition within about five months after it takes effect. The new law gives property owners a tool for stopping future annexation attempts, and allows several communities to stop pending annexations.
Specifically, legislators provided a process for property owners to rescind annexations already approved in Fayetteville, Kinston, Lexington, Rocky Mount, Wilmington, Southport, Goldsboro and Asheville.
Residents of the Biltmore Lake community have begun signing a petition to block an annexation by Asheville. The city council voted in 2007 to annex about 440 acres in the upscale community, but the annexation did not take effect because residents have challenged it in court.
Jerry Jensen, chairman of the Biltmore Lake Community Action Committee, said residents in the community have spent more than $100,000 in legal costs to stop the annexation, which would have added 768 residents and $1.2 million in tax revenue for the city. Jensen said he expects Biltmore Lake will have enough petition signatures to meet the requirements of the new law.
Residents in the Gates Four community near Fayetteville have begun the same process to block a “forced” annexation there. The community of about 650 residents has been battling for several years against the annexation, which was part of a major city expansion adding 27 square miles and 42,000 people to the city at once.
Many annexation opponents cited Fayetteville’s “big bang” expansion when claiming that cities had abused state annexation laws, aggressively annexing valuable areas while offering little in return.
Bobby Gleaton, president of the Gates Four Homeowners Association, said he’s sure his community, surrounded now by the city on three sides, will come up with enough petition signatures. If it does, the city will be blocked from pursuing the annexation again for three years based on provisions in the new law.
The new legislation also affects water and sewer services in proposed annexation areas. Under the old law, cities could take many years to provide the services to an annexed area, and residents had to pay the cost of extending the services to their property. The new law requires municipalities to provide at no cost water and sewer to houses in an annexation area within 3½ years.
The N.C. League of Municipalities has criticized the annexation law changes, which it said will make it much harder for cities and towns to expand in an orderly way. The league said the state’s previous annexation laws helped ensure cities and towns are financially sound, allowing them to absorb areas adjoining their current borders when they become urban in nature.
Residents both inside and outside municipalities, said the league, benefit from vibrant cities that attract jobs, educational institutions, healthcare providers and recreational facilities.
The gas tax in North Carolina will go up by 2.5 cents per gallon beginning July 1. The gasoline excise tax, recalculated by the state each year based on a six-month average for gas prices, will rise to a new high of 35 cents, giving the state more revenue for building and maintaining roads.
Although legislators voted to lower the state’s sales tax, they were unwilling to stop the increase in the gas tax. Some legislators said the revenue is needed to keep up with critical infrastructure needs in the state. The N.C. Department of Transportation said it has a list of about 1,100 road projects to complete between 2015 and 2020. The projects are estimated to cost about $45 billion, but DOT said it only has about $9 billion to spend. Each penny in the gas tax generates about $50 million more to go toward road projects.
Draexlmaier Automotive of America is planning to expand its facility in Spartanburg County, adding 150 jobs over the next five years. The company plans a $22 million investment to upgrade equipment and add a 64,500-square-foot building to its existing facility on East Main Street in Duncan. The expansion is expected to increase capacity by about a third at Draexlmaier’s Upstate plant, which assembles vehicle interiors.
Compass Group USA plans to invest $8.5 million and add 200 jobs at its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. The company, providing dining and related services to corporations, educational and healthcare facilities and entertainment venues, plans to hire employees for its information-technology, purchasing, finance, human resource, legal and business development departments.
N.C. Governor Bev Perdue said the average salary for the new jobs will be $52,500, excluding benefits. The state offered incentives of up to $1.7 million if the job and investment targets are met.
Compass Group USA is a subsidiary of Compass Group PLC of Great Britain, which Perdue said is the 17th largest employer in the world.
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy has acquired a conservation easement for a biologically diverse, 37-acre tract that’s visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The land, less than a mile from the parkway, is near the Asheville watershed, Pisgah National Forest and more than 2,500 acres already held by the conservancy.
Joe Carson said he originally planned to build a cottage on the property when he bought it in 1996, but he decided instead to pursue the conservation easement “to leave a legacy of untouched nature and open space for future generations to enjoy.”
The forested land includes old oak and hickory trees, tributaries of Lang Branch Creek, rare plants and 91 species of nesting birds observed on the property.
The easement adds to nearly 4,400 acres that have been protected in Buncombe County since 2006.
Victims of a state program to sterilize people between the 1920s and 1970s got a chance to share their stories Wednesday with a state task force that will consider ways to compensate them.
The program, created by the N.C. Board of Eugenics, oversaw the sterilization of nearly 7,600 people over about six decades. Although many of the victims are no longer alive, family members packed a room at the N.C. Department of Agriculture building to talk to the task force.
The Board of Eugenics sterilized people that it determined were “feeble minded” and unfit for parenthood. Many of the victims were considered too poor, undereducated or mentally unstable to be a parent.
Phoebe Zerwick, a member of the task force, said she found the victims’ stories to be “moving and humbling.” She said she did not find any of them to be “feeble-minded,” adding the people were “eloquent, strong and educated.”
“That drove home for me how tragic the eugenics program was,” said Zerwick.
In 2002, N.C. Governor Mike Easley apologized to the victims, but no compensation was provided. Current governor Bev Perdue attended Wednesday’s meeting, along with four state representatives, but did not make any promises regarding compensation.
The task force is expected to give its recommendations on compensation to the governor by February 1.
More than 1,000 of the 1,500 jobs slated to be cut in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have been saved thanks to additional funding in state and county budgets.
Eric Davis, chair of CMS board of education, said the direct expects to receive nearly $30 million more from the state than initially expected. The money will be used to continue the district’s pre-K program, serving about 3,000 disadvantaged four-year-olds, and spare layoffs for about 1,050 educators.
Amazon has resumed work and reposted jobs for a new distribution facility near Columbia, S.C. The company said it is proceeding with plans for the facility, expected to employ about 2,000 people, after the state legislature approved a sales tax exemption for the company. Under the terms of the tax break, Amazon will not have to collect sales tax on purchases by South Carolina residents for the next five years.
S.C. legislators previously rejected the tax break after Gov. Nikki Haley and Tea Party members of the S.C. GOP voiced opposition, saying it would create an unlevel playing field for retailers in the state. However, legislators revisited the issue after Amazon stopped work on the project.
Some economic development officials said the rejection also was harming efforts to recruit other companies to the state.
Haley agreed to sign the tax break into law after it was approved by the legislature, but said a similar incentive should not be offered to bring in new jobs while she is in office.
The N.C. House and Senate approved bills to make NASCAR the official state sport. Legislators applauded NASCAR for its economic impact and noted its long history in the state.
Stock car racing has its roots in the foothills of Western North Carolina where moonshiners used souped-up Chevys and Fords to outrun the revenuers, or tax collectors. The shiners began racing on the weekends to see who had the fastest car.
The idea of honoring NASCAR as the official sport was originated by a group of students from an elementary school in Lake Norman.
Some officials suggested basketball should be the state sport, but a bipartisan group of legislators sided with the children. The committee noted that NASCAR originated in the Tarheel state, while basketball was invented in Massachusetts.
The vintage Craggy Mountain Line train may soon be operating along Beaverdam Creek in Woodfin, N.C., again if the nonprofit organization supporting the line can raise more funds for a train engine.
Rocky Hollifield, owner of the restored train and trolley cars for the line, said the rail and ties and train cars are ready and he even found some vintage equipment, such as an authentic ticket taker, on eBay. But Hollifield, a full time engineer for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, said about $150,000 more is needed, primarily for an engine, to get the line running by next spring.
Hollifield said he and others have donated their time to the project over the past 10 years. All donations have gone toward restoring the previously faded and moldy train cars and buying other needed equipment, he said.
Once the project is complete, the group plans to operate the line over a 3.5-mile stretch of track on Fridays and Saturdays a few times a month. The group estimates a ticket price of $10 for the ride that would last about two hours, making the train ride cheaper and shorter than other rides in Western North Carolina.
People who ride the train could stop for a picnic at Riverside Park along the French Broad River before going back to the depot, said Hollifield, who also envisions a depot eventually with a shop and restaurant.

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