RALEIGH — Four major reforms are critical for North Carolina to get rid of forced annexation, according to a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report. The changes would help fix a “fundamentally flawed” annexation law.
Click here to listen to Daren Bakst discussing this Spotlight report.
“Real reform of the state’s regressive annexation law does not have to get rid of annexation generally or even city-initiated annexation,” said report author Daren Bakst, JLF Legal and Regulatory Policy Analyst. “However, it should get rid of the practice of forced annexation that allows municipalities unilaterally to force individuals in unincorporated areas to become residents of municipalities against their will.”
Bakst is issuing his recommendations as the Joint Legislative Study Commission on Municipal Annexation prepares to meet 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Raleigh. That commission could submit ideas on annexation reform to the new General Assembly that convenes next month in Raleigh.
The four critical reforms in Bakst’s report deal with “meaningful services,” “costs and burden” of annexation, “meaningful oversight,” and a vote of the affected property owners, he said.
“First, municipalities should be permitted to annex areas only if they are going to provide meaningful and significant services to annexation victims,” Bakst said. “The North Carolina Supreme Court has said that the purpose of forced annexation under the state’s annexation law was to promote sound urban growth through provision of meaningful services to property owners.”
Police and fire protection and water and sewer services qualify as “meaningful,” Bakst said. “It is hard to argue that any other service — such as street maintenance or garbage collection — would be meaningful and significant enough to justify forced annexation.”
The word “meaningful” creates another barrier to forced annexation, Bakst said. “A municipal service is not meaningful if it duplicates or provides more of an existing service the annexed area already enjoys,” he said. “For example, if the area targeted for annexation already has adequate police protection, a municipality should not be able to add extra police protection as a justification for the annexation. As a matter of common sense, the service would not be meaningful or significant to the affected property owners.”
The second critical reform focuses on the costs and burdens of annexation, Bakst said. “Any municipality engaging in forced annexation should be required to pay for the costs associated with the provision of services,” he said. “Annexation victims should not bear those costs, including costs for new water and sewer lines and connections. The law should also eliminate development fees. Throughout the annexation process, the burden of proof should be on municipalities to establish that a proposed annexation is legally permissible and appropriate.”
Bakst’s third reform involves “meaningful” oversight of municipalities during the annexation process. “County commissioners should perform this role and review each annexation proposal,” he said. “Annexation victims and municipalities are both part of a county, and county commissioners are accountable to all voters — not just municipal voters. If a county commission agrees that a proposed annexation is appropriate, then it would certify that proposal for a vote.”
The vote is the simplest reform, Bakst said. “There would be a simple majority vote of qualified electors in the proposed annexation area to determine if an annexation is adopted,” he said. “The majority vote is far from perfect because many homeowners would still be annexed against their will. However, this is a far more reasonable and democratic process than what currently exists.”
The study commission has an opportunity to recommend real reform to the state’s regressive annexation law, Bakst said. “Past study commissions have tinkered with the law without addressing the major problems,” he said. “All previous ‘efforts’ at reform have led to the current environment in which opposition to the state’s outdated annexation law has never been stronger.”
In addition to his four critical reforms, Bakst recommends a dozen other ideas the study group could consider. “Not one of these points is unreasonable, yet North Carolina still remains stuck in an outdated 50-year-old system ripe with potential for discrimination, political gerrymandering, and financial bailouts for mismanaged municipalities, not to mention dissatisfied and frustrated property owners,” he said.
“The question ultimately is whether North Carolina will join virtually every other state in the country in rejecting forced annexation and ensure property rights and democratic principles are secure and respected.”
Daren Bakst’s Spotlight report, “A Blueprint for Annexation Reform,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Bakst at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].