CHAPEL HILL — The state Senate bill calling for a moratorium on involuntary annexations is a shortsighted response to a statute in need of reform, particularly to address the needs of African-American and low-income communities that have historically been excluded from the range of benefits available to residents of municipalities.
Many excluded communities are adjacent to or surrounded by municipal boundaries. Residents of these neighborhoods are excluded from voting in municipal elections, denied access to necessary public services like water, sewer and adequate police and fire protection, and are often burdened with landfills and other environmental hazards.
As a result, these communities remain underdeveloped and unable to attract new economic opportunities and better housing. Even though residents are denied a voice in local elections and frequently remain excluded for decades, these communities are subject to the municipality's zoning, planning and housing ordinances through legislatively authorized Extra Territorial Jurisdiction.
One recent example from Halifax County is Lincoln Heights, a majority African-American community that has existed on the border of Roanoke Rapids for decades. The city put Lincoln Heights at the top of its list of possible sites for a municipal waste transfer station, despite having already burdened the community with three landfills since 1950. City officials justified ignoring the community's concerns because the residents were not part of the city. The plight of this excluded community is dramatic but not unique.
Under current law, a city cannot involuntarily annex an area that does not meet certain density standards. Because excluded communities are underdeveloped due to a lack of services, they rarely meet current statutory requirements. While voluntary and legislative annexation procedures provide relief for certain excluded communities, they create high barriers to inclusion.
Voluntary annexation requires signatures from 100 percent of area property owners, an impediment to any existing community and a virtually insurmountable hurdle for excluded communities where the presence of heirs' property (real estate inherited without a will) often means that a single parcel may have dozens of owners, some of whom may not be identified or even know they own a portion. Legislative annexation literally requires an act of the General Assembly - no easy task for a community denied a voice even at the town council.
North Carolina's annexation laws should be reformed. Municipalities generally choose to annex territory not based on density or on the need for services but on anticipated property tax revenues. Low-income communities continue to be excluded.
Rather than a moratorium, legislation should be adopted that requires municipalities to close "doughnut holes," (excluded communities completely surrounded by a municipality). For involuntary annexations, the strict density requirements should be lowered for excluded communities. For voluntary annexations, the number of required signatures should be lowered. Finally, cities that incorporate these excluded neighborhoods should receive priority in state funding to extend infrastructure to them.
A bill proposing some of these changes was introduced with bipartisan support last year. These proposed reforms address critical needs and offer the promise of political engagement for excluded communities across our state; this should again be the legislature's focus.
Municipalities need the ability to annex new developments to ensure that residents pay their fair share for services, but they ought not to be allowed to annex only high-value areas. Reform of the annexation statutes will help to ensure that excluded communities gain the right to vote in the municipalities that control them and secure access to the same services as their wealthier neighbors.
Peter Gilbert is community inclusion attorney-fellow with the UNC Center for Civil Rights.