By Jeff Keeling
Along with the Chattanooga metro, Johnson City was among the most impacted municipalities when changes to the state of Tennessee’s annexation laws commenced in 2013. Now, a number of residents in the Suncrest area of Gray who were annexed in 2012 have asked that the move be reversed.
Last week, News & Neighbor spoke with Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson about the request, how it will be considered, and how the annexation law situation might play out over the next several years in Tennessee. Further annexation law changes could be on the horizon, including one that would let people in previously annexed areas vote to “deannex.”
For now, though, Peterson said state law leaves it up to cities to determine how to respond to any requests from citizens – individually or in groups – that they be deannexed.
Peterson attended a Dec. 21 meeting, convened by State Rep. Micah Van Huss (R-6th), and began gathering names of individuals from the Suncrest area who would like to have their properties deannexed. In the coming weeks or months, city staff will confirm the number of deannexation requests, and then go to work on assessing the ramifications of any such action.
“We’ll put a map together that includes all of those properties, we’ll do an analysis of the property use, how it’s zoned, how many people does it affect, what impact will it have on us in terms of services,” Peterson said. “Just a complete analysis like we would do for an annexation request, we’ll do the same for this.”
That information will then be presented to the City Commission, Peterson said. “At that point they can decide whether or not they want to pursue the deannexation. But it’s entirely up to the City Commission as to what happens with it.”
The commission could approve deannexation by ordinance, which would require three readings. It could also call for a referendum, which would have to be approved by three-fourths of voters. Furthermore, if a majority of voters in an area the city decided to deannex opposed such a move, it would be nullified – though that would require a petition signed by 10 percent of voters in the area followed by a special referendum – something that seems highly unlikely in the case of the Suncrest neighborhood.
Any deannexation would stand in contrast, Peterson said, to 152 annexations the city did between January 2000 and June 2013. He said 110 of those were owner initiated, the rest city-initiated, and that opposition was voiced in just five of those cases. The annexation practices were governed by Public Law 1101, on which the city’s “Urban Growth Boundary” was based. That boundary, established in what Peterson said was a transparent process that included county representatives, including Gray residents, encompassed, “the likely high growth areas of the county that the city was likely to grow into – which includes annexing those areas.”
None of those facts seems to have dampened the spirits of the Suncrest residents who want out of the city. The fact that not all residents favor deannexation could make the city staff’s analysis of the request a complicated affair. Possible scenarios include streets where some households favor staying in the city and others don’t, Peterson said.
“We’ll make that consideration just like we do annexation requests. We have turned down some annexation requests because it didn’t make any sense for us to do the annexation. We’ll look at this in the same manner, just from a reverse perspective. If it makes sense we’ll do it, and if it doesn’t make sense we won’t do it.
“If there’s 20 on a street and seven want to stay in and 13 want out, we may deannex all of them. We’ll just have to look at it on a case-by-case basis and make a decision based on what’s in the best interest of all the citizens.”
Parallel to completing the analysis of the Gray requests, Peterson said the city administration will keep a close eye on further developments in the annexation laws. Some business owners and economic developers have expressed concern the initial law may impede economic development by making it harder for employers to get unincorporated property annexed. The law seems to make it difficult to get non-city property that isn’t already contiguous to a city boundary annexed, even if the owner wants it to be, unless owners of the property in between it and the city boundary consent.
Peterson said that concern and others are all just part of the process. “There are components of a much broader bill that I think are positive for both the incorporated and the unincorporated areas.”
The City Commission may opt to deannex the people in Gray who want out of the city before any further changes occur to the law. It may wait and see if Gray residents are given the right to decide that question on their own at the ballot box, whether the city thinks it’s a good idea or not.
“I think part of the City Commission’s deliberation as they look at these requests is, ‘is it something that should be pursued or not, and when should it be pursued?’” Peterson said.
Eventually, Peterson expects final laws regarding annexation in Tennessee that “moderate out the rough edges” of the sea change that put at least a temporary end to annexation by ordinance.
“With a lot of legislation there are unintended consequences, and you have to go back and kind of fine tune it and get it to a point where it works as anticipated and at its most effective level. I think the same will happen with these changes in growth laws.”