RALEIGH — People seeking real reform of North Carolina’s annexation law should ignore a bill that cleared the N.C. House last year. That bill does more harm than good, a John Locke Foundation expert argues in a new Spotlight report.
“Some legislators have tried to push House Bill 524 as reform,” said report author Daren Bakst, JLF Director of Legal and Regulatory Studies. “Supporters claim that H.B. 524 is a ‘start’ or a positive incremental step in the right direction. They are wrong.”
The Senate needs to know about the problems linked to H.B. 524 before taking any action on annexation reform this year, Bakst said. “If H.B. 524 represented a real step in the right direction, senators could build their reforms on this bill,” he said. “Unfortunately, H.B. 524 has too many flaws. The Senate should look elsewhere for ideas that would lead to real reform.”
Bakst’s report outlines key elements of real annexation reform. “Not only does H.B. 524 fail to address a single meaningful reform, it actually makes the existing annexation statute worse,” he said. “It does not constitute a ‘start’ to anything but more annexation abuse. That means forced annexation would be an even greater problem for the 4.1 million North Carolinians who live in unincorporated areas.”
Reform should address forced annexation, the process that allows cities and towns to force individuals to live inside municipalities against their wishes, Bakst said.
“Meaningful reform of forced annexation is actually very simple,” Bakst said. “It can be boiled down easily. Annexed property owners should have a real voice in the annexation process, and they should be provided at least one necessary service.”
Two options are available to give the annexed property owners a “real voice,” Bakst said. “The first — and best — option is a simple majority vote among property owners targeted for annexation,” he said. “The second, less desirable option would allow county commissioners to approve city-initiated annexations.”
Municipalities should not be allowed to annex an area forcibly if that area needs no city services, Bakst said. “The N.C. Supreme Court has confirmed that the entire purpose of forced annexation is to provide services to annexed property owners that give them a significant benefit. If a municipality can’t meet that standard, there should be no annexation.”
Another reform would require municipalities to pay for the costs of water and sewer infrastructure, Bakst said. “As it exists now, property owners who neither need nor want water and sewer services have to pay for the infrastructure costs associated with those services when they’re annexed,” he said. “If the city or town forcibly annexes those property owners, the city or town should foot the bill for infrastructure costs.”
Nothing in the House annexation legislation addresses any of these meaningful reform ideas, Bakst said.
“H.B. 524 actually makes things worse,” he said. “The bill would allow municipalities to duplicate existing services in an annexed area. Even though there’s a chance the North Carolina Supreme Court could rule that providing these unnecessary services is not allowed under existing laws, H.B. 524 preempts the court from ever making such a ruling.”
The House bill would give cities and towns more time to wait in providing water and sewer service to annexed property owners, Bakst said. The bill also would force annexed property owners to pay immediately for infrastructure costs. Existing law gives property owners the option of waiting to incur those costs.
“H.B. 524 also would give municipalities more leeway in refusing to provide sewer lines to annexed property owners,” Bakst said. “Current law allows cities and towns to delay complying with this responsibility if there are cost issues tied to the unique topography of the annexed area. H.B. 524 would remove the language about topography and allow cities and towns to delay providing sewer lines if they claim there are any financial reasons preventing them from providing the service.”
Senators have a viable alternative to the flawed H.B. 524, Bakst said. “Senate Bill 494 is a much better option than the House bill,” he said. “The Senate bill includes a vote for targeted property owners, county approval of annexations, and a requirement that cities and towns provide meaningful services. Senators seeking real reform should start with S.B. 494.”
Daren Bakst’s Spotlight report, “Meaningful Annexation Reform: Getting Through the Smoke and Mirrors,” 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].