A planning tool in need of reform

November 20, 2010 

— The Wake County Board of Commissioners' approval of additional extraterritorial jurisdiction for the towns of Knightdale and Zebulon highlights the need to reform ETJ statewide.

Originally conceived as a tool to manage growth and ensure effective planning, ETJ allows a city to extend its land use, zoning, planning and other municipal authority over communities that do not have the right to vote in municipal elections and are thus unable to hold officials accountable for decisions that substantially affect their lives.

ETJ may extend up to 3 miles beyond the city limits and can encompass areas larger than the city itself. The recently approved ETJ for Knightdale is bigger than the entire town; Zebulon's new ETJ is half the size of the incorporated town, and both towns already had substantial areas under ETJ.

In 1957 a state legislative study commission endorsed the use of ETJ, in part on the basis that ETJ areas would become part of the incorporated municipality. Future annexation remains a key justification for continuing support for broad ETJ power. It seems reasonable to allow cities to have planning authority over areas that will soon become part of the city itself.

In fact, however, many cities keep communities within their ETJs for decades with no intention to annex these areas.

A 2006 UNC School of Government report noted that of the 191 North Carolina cities with ETJs, 57 percent reported that although their ETJ was "likely" to be annexed sometime, they had no plans or timetable for annexations; an additional 34 percent reported that their ETJs were "unrelated" to any annexation planning.

In extending the ETJ for Zebulon and Knightdale, the Wake commissioners found that both towns met the county's criteria that the areas be annexed with 10 years - an admirable goal that would address some of the inherent inequities in ETJ. However, Zebulon has annexed just 5 percent of the ETJ area it established in 2002; Knightdale has annexed only 40 percent of the ETJ it gained in 1998 and 1996.

Rather than using ETJ as part of a process to ensure the orderly expansion of town boundaries, ETJ is often misused to prevent nearby towns from encroaching or to exercise control over excluded communities the towns have no intent to annex.

County leaders, the only local officials elected by residents in these excluded ETJ communities, abrogate responsibility for the communities' needs to the municipalities who control the ETJ.

The municipalities in turn repeatedly refer ETJ residents back to the county, creating a frustrating cycle of political buck-passing, miscommunication, misleading and inaccurate information, and unmet community needs.

The exclusion of unincorporated low-wealth and minority communities has its origins in our country's history of racial discrimination and residential segregation. Over time, the effects of this discrimination have led to the significant economic underdevelopment and social isolation of these excluded communities, which often lack access to basic municipal services like water and sewer, trash pickup and police protection. By virtue of their proximity to the borders of the adjacent municipalities, almost all of the excluded communities with which the Center for Civil Rights has worked are within the ETJ, and many have been so for decades.

ETJ statutes should require municipalities to either immediately annex or release from jurisdiction any area that has been in the ETJ for 10 years or more. Areas annexed under this provision should be exempt from other statutory restrictions on annexation. Additionally, all municipalities should develop "10-year plans" for all ETJ areas, establishing whether those areas will be annexed or released from jurisdiction upon the 10-year milestone.

Mark Dorosin is the senior managing attorney and Peter Gilbert is the community development attorney fellow at the UNC Center for Civil Rights .

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