Small cities seeking to get annexations OK’d just ahead of new law

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Residents of 104 properties outside the city limits of Liberty Hill say they intend to sue if necessary to block a forced annexation of a type outlawed in this past legislative session.

The new state law requires communities to hold an election to allow property owners to decide whether they want to be annexed. But the law also includes an allowance for cities to complete annexations started before the new law was signed into effect May 24. At its May 13 meeting, the Liberty Hill City Council approved developing a service plan for residents being annexed.

The councils for at least two other small cities, Huntsville and Lufkin, both in East Texas, took actions in the days after the bill passed on May 14 to speed along annexations that are unpopular with some of the homeowners affected.

Officials in Liberty Hill, a city of about 1,600 people 35 miles northwest of Austin, intend to offer their service plan at a public hearing Monday night. The plan includes police, fire and emergency medical services, sanitary sewer and solid waste disposal. Municipal water is not offered.

Services will be provided upon the completion of the annexation, City Administrator Greg Boatright told The Texas Monitor. The city has up to four and a half years to provide services to the annexed areas if new facilities are necessary to provide them, according to the service agreement

Residents who formed Liberty Hill ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction) Annexation, objecting to the city’s use of the legal loophole to force an annexation they do not want, have hired a lawyer. Several members of the group said they moved to this mostly rural area to escape the dictates of local government and its zoning and permitting requirements.

Wesley Sandlin, who has lived with a well and a septic system since moving to the area in 2004, said he is particularly angry city officials acted ahead of a law written to prevent this kind of action.

“The fact that they did this on the very fringe of the law, using a loophole, comes across to me as nothing more than a land grab,” Sandlin told The Texas Monitor. “It’s taxation without representation. That’s why my family is so adamantly opposed to this.”

Steve Wilson, who has lived on six acres outside of the city limits since 1999, estimates the city is going to tax him between $2,000 and $2,500 a year for services he doesn’t want. Those who haven’t drilled their own wells get their water from the city of Georgetown and various other services from Williamson County.

“We hope our politicians and state government see what is happening here and join us in stopping this land grab,” Wilson said. “They want to grow Liberty Hill on the backs of people taxed for things they don’t need.”

Boatright acknowledged that the council’s action allowed the city to avoid putting the annexation to a vote. Plans for this annexation, he told The Texas Monitor, were begun after the last annexation in 2015.

State law allows cities to annex a maximum of 10 percent of their total acreage in any year or a maximum of 30 percent accrued over several years. Liberty Hill could annex 864 acres or 72 percent of the 1,200 acres identified in its annexation proposal.

“Knowing those limits, staff began working on this proposal for a 2019 annexation long before HB 347 [the new annexation law] was ever introduced,” Boatright said. “Its passage did not impact our timeline.”

Boatright also disputed the contention that the city has acted unilaterally. Certified letters went out to affected residents, notices were published in the local paper and officials have met to discuss the annexation with the public.

“We are continuing to work with the affected landowners and hope to have them as new residents of Liberty Hill in the near future,” Boatright said.

Opponents, however, say Liberty Hill has already made up its mind. “They didn’t want to put this thing to a vote because it wouldn’t pass,” Sandlin said. “I would have at least liked to have had a vote of my peers. If it passed, I wouldn’t like it, but I wouldn’t fight it.”

If the city council approves the annexation, there will be a fight, Sandlin said, “and our attorneys feel we have a good, valid case.”

Huntsville’s annexation plan is far more ambitious. The annexation proposed ahead of HB 347 was the city’s first in 17 years, but City Manager Aron Kulhavy insisted the legislation had no impact on the proposal. 

Huntsville wants to bring more than 6,400 acres into the city, on seven tracts, mostly in and around major highways and Huntsville State Park.

Like Liberty Hill, Kulhavy said, Huntsville intended to present a detailed service plan in advance of an annexation vote.  “If an annexation is going to be a burden on the existing residents then we won’t do it,” he said.

The city of Lufkin is proceeding along the same path and the issue of services will most likely be a sticking point. A decade after the city’s last major annexation, those annexed residents still are without the sewer service they were promised.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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