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Washington County wants equal vote on annexation requests

Agreement on annexation requests by both governmental bodies and protection of property owners’ rights are the priorities Washington County commissioners want to include in discussions with legislators.
During a Feb. 10 called meeting of the Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural Committee and Zoning Administrator’s Oversight Committee, commissioners discussed a recent report submitted by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations that outlines the consequences of Public Chapter 707, which eliminated annexation without consent in Tennessee.
An earlier meeting with Johnson City leaders had determined the most advantageous approach in providing input on the annexation rules that went into effect during 2014 would be to focus on the areas of overlap.
“We need to go down this road together,” Commissioner Todd Hensley said last week.
Recommendations on non-contiguous annexation, deannexation and a preference of petition over referendum were the main points commissioners decided to pass on to the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee scheduled to meet two nights later.
“One of the biggest concerns for the county is Johnson City’s interest in anything that generates sales tax,” said Mayor Dan Eldridge, referring to non-contiguous annexation of areas not adjacent to the city limits.
The result of such annexation in the past is the creation of “donut holes” of service in the county and loss of revenue. Moving to a landowner request system may make that problem worse.
“Just because a request is made doesn’t mean it makes sense for either entity,” Commissioner David Tomita said. “I think an agreement between the two legislative bodies, with each having the option to opt out, would provide protection.”
Commissioners would like to see that same protection when it comes to deannexation, which can only be requested when a city fails to fully implement services.
Eldridge said deannexation has the potential to create chaos, with emergency services as one example, that could result in a cost to the county. “This is something we need to monitor closely,” he said.
In both types of annexation requests, commissioners agreed the property owner, even if a non-resident, should have priority. “The representation of the land owners needs to be part of any rule,” Commissioner Joe Grandy said.
Recommending a petition process over a referendum is the solution commissioners believe would give the property owner the most control in the process, in addition to protecting the legislative body against the expense of a special election.
The committees’ concern regarding the rights of the property owners and the request for equal input on annexation decisions were shared with city officials during the Feb. 12 called meeting of the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.
“It seems to us that there are enough variables that all the government entities need to weigh in, and either should be able to halt the request,” Grandy said.
Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin said by the time the process reached a call for a joint decision, the city would not want to halt the annexation. “Is the county ready to be the bad guy and tell the property owner no?”
When Van Brocklin asked what the county would be willing to consider as far as non-contiguous annexation, Grandy said each case is different and unique.
“At some point law gets written and different and unique gets taken out,” Van Brocklin responded, asking if the county would still want to retain the option to halt the annexation, and Grandy said yes.
City Manager Pete Peterson said the vast majority of annexation requests have been for residential purposes, which relieves the county of fire, police and school services. “I would encourage this group in whatever message it sends that all are included,” he said. “There have been requests that didn’t make any sense in a business model, and we said no.”
Grandy said county commissioners had the same thought process on deannexation. “We would just like the opportunity to weigh in on it,” he said. “Who initiates does not make any difference.”
During the next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, March 4, members of the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee will discuss the bills that have been filed for the next session of the General Assembly.