Liberty Hill backs off unpopular annexation

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Surprising one of the biggest crowds ever at city hall, the Liberty Hill City Council Monday night voted unanimously to drop its proposed annexation of more than 100 properties.

“I was hugging people and cheering and looking for somebody to high five,” said Lori Gallagher, who organized opposition in the weeks before the vote. “I give this council credit for understanding that most all Texans are for voluntary annexation, not forced annexation.”

The council took comments from many of the roughly 150 people in attendance, all of them opposed to the city using a loophole in a new state law to extend their city limits without putting it to a vote of those to be annexed. Speakers were asked to leave when they were done, to make room for more speakers in a chamber that seats 49 people.

After two hours of testimony, the council retired to executive session, returned, and, without discussion, voted to work only with property owners who want to be annexed. Any future annexation would be put to a vote of the residents involved, consistent with a state law that went into effect May 24.

“I applaud the city council for doing this the way they did,” said Wesley Sandlin, who spoke in opposition Monday night. “They had the law on their side. They could have run over the top of everybody with this. The mood changed with this vote. We can work with the city council on this.”

City Administrator Greg Boatright told The Texas Monitor Tuesday the council’s decision came after listening carefully to what residents outside the city limits had to say.

“Last night, council ultimately voted to discontinue the annexation proceedings as the best decision for the community right now,” Boatright said.  “We look forward to continuing the conversation with these property owners to potentially revisit an annexation in the future.”

Liberty Hill, a town northwest of Austin, is one of at least three municipalities in Texas identified by The Texas Monitor that began forced annexation proceedings just before May 14, when the Legislature approved a new law that banned annexations without a public vote.

Councils in the East Texas cities of Huntsville and Lufkin are expected to consider forced annexations sometime in August. Last week, opponents in Lufkin packed city hall to object to the annexation of more than 7,000 mostly undeveloped acres along the area’s major highways and Huntsville State Park, according to a Rockwall County Herald-Banner story.   

Many of those who spoke objected to the annexation because the city still has not provided sewer and water services to some residents brought into the city as far back as the 1980s, the story said.

Lufkin annexed tracts of land 10 years ago and has yet to provide sewer service to residents there.

Using a calculation allowed under state law, Liberty Hill had the option to annex 864 acres of a total of 1,200 acres included in its original proposal. Last week, City Administrator Greg Boatright told The Texas Monitor the council was aware of the new annexation law but that the city was following through on plans that were begun right after the last annexation in 2015.

Gallagher said her group Liberty Hill ETJ [extraterritorial jurisdiction] Annexation has no intention of disbanding. “We are absolutely unified in not wanting to be annexed.”

But Gallagher and Sandlin concede that Liberty Hill is growing and that annexation is inevitable, particularly north of State Highway 29 west of the city, where Sandlin and about eight other homeowners live.

Sandlin said, “I’ve gone from, ‘Annex me over my dead body’ to, realistically, ‘My property is going to be annexed someday.’ The key to a successful annexation is a good service plan.”

Most important for now was the council putting future annexation in the hands of the people affected, said Steve Wilson, one of the residents targeted by the Liberty Hill plan.

“We feel Gov. Abbott and the legislature made it clear that the State of Texas wouldn’t stand for involuntary annexation,” Wilson said. “Let the public have a say in their future and how their homesteads are used for their enjoyment.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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