Berkshire Downs resists its annexation

Staff WriterApril 16, 2009 

When the Raleigh City Council voted in January to forcibly annex the Berkshire Downs neighborhood in northeastern Wake County, it seemed like a slam-dunk.

Only one council member, Nancy McFarlane, opposed the move, but that didn't stop the residents from aggressively lobbying others on the council to change their minds. The costs of annexation, they argued, are too much to bear in this economy and will result in people being forced to sell their homes or face foreclosure. Now, residents of the neighborhood need a single council member's vote to prevent annexation.

"This is just a bad time to annex because of the cost it is putting on the community," said James Alston, 57, who owns one of the 109 homes that will be annexed if the council takes no further action. "Sixty percent of people out here say if they do annex, they will be foreclosed on if they can't sell their house."

Last week, the City Council held a second vote on the Berkshire Downs annexation, and the result was 4-4, just one shy of overturning the annexation.

"I thought my vote was a mistake, and so I thought it would be a good idea to repeal it," Councilman Rodger Koopman said. "It's the timing."

Councilmen Philip Isley and Russ Stephenson also changed their minds.

Forcibly annexing property is controversial in any environment, but the recession has increased attention to the costs of such moves.

Joining the city of Raleigh means paying property taxes and fees for things such as vehicles, stormwater and pets. Owners are also assessed a portion of the cost of extending water and sewer service to their property, and then must pay water and sewer connection fees if they elect to get those city services.

In the case of Berkshire Downs, the city estimates the assessment fee will be between $8,000 and $12,000 depending on the lot. Water and sewer connection fees will amount to another $6,788.

Homeowners won't begin paying off the assessment fee for several years and will have 10 years to pay back the city at 6 percent interest. Connection fees can be financed over five years at 8 percent interest.

Many Berkshire Downs residents say in a bad economy those terms seem onerous.

"There are some who are saying they're not going to pay it," said Mat Trickel, 48, who bought his home in October and estimates that his assessment will come to just under $13,000. "They'll just let the city put a lien on the house."

No choice for owners

Unlike many other states, North Carolina allows a city or town to extend its border even if a property owner doesn't agree.

Some lawmakers are now pushing to give property owners more rights, and the issue has prompted 49 bills in the N.C. House and Senate this legislative session.

City Manager Russell Allen said the city initiated the annexation of Berkshire Downs because it has become almost entirely encircled by the city of Raleigh. The neighborhood is within Raleigh's extraterritorial jurisdiction, meaning Wake County expects the city to eventually annex the area.

The city also considers the neighborhood an environmental danger. Wake County's Environment Services Department recommended that Raleigh extend water and sewer to Berkshire Downs because of continuing problems with some septic tanks in the neighborhood.

Berkshire Downs residents get water from a community well operated by Heater Utilities, a subsidiary of the utility Aqua North Carolina. Some residents use a private garbage pickup service; others simply use the North Wake Landfill off Durant Road.

Fire and police coverage are provided by the Wake-New Hope volunteer fire department and the Wake County Sheriff's Department. Allen said that Berkshire Downs residents will get the benefit of city services, while the immediate financial impact on homeowners will be minimal when you factor in all the costs and savings.

"There's very little about this decision that has a significant financial impact on them in the short-term," he said.

Encircled, but apart

Allen said there's also fairness to consider. Berkshire Downs is off Perry Creek Road and just north of Interstate 540. Residents of the neighborhood are able to enjoy the parks and other amenities Raleigh offers without contributing to the tax base.

But many Berkshire Downs residents say they have no desire to become part of Raleigh.

"We don't want the city telling us what to do," said Dorothy Woodworth, who moved to Berkshire Downs in 1992. Woodworth and her husband are preparing to sell their home if the annexation goes through.

"We would sell. We can't afford it," she said.

Woodworth and other residents are hoping they can persuade one more City Council member to change a vote before the annexation becomes official.

Before the latest vote, Mayor Charles Meeker met with the neighborhood. Although Meeker refused to change his vote, he said he supports delaying assessment payments by a year and trying to get state or federal money to assist with the payments.

Councilwoman Mary-Ann Bald win said she's willing to meet with the neighborhood.

"I feel as an at-large representative I have to look at what is best for the city," she said. "I feel bad for these people. I just have to see if we can make it more equitable."

david.bracken@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4548

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