Reluctant landowners stymie Texas cities' growth plans
By DAVID WARREN
Nov. 29, 2017
DALLAS (AP) — Shannon and Jason Blake traded life in the booming Dallas suburb of Frisco last year for a farmhouse and 30 acres outside of McKinney, about 10 miles away.
They turned some of the new land into a makeshift running track for their six young kids, who are homeschooled, and they cherish the freedom to use their property the way they wish. When McKinney told them in September that it planned to expand its borders to include their land and about 4,000 more unincorporated acres, the Blakes and their neighbors pushed back, fearing new property restrictions, regulations and taxes. McKinney abandoned the plan earlier this month.
"We bought this land to use it in the manner we purchased it, which is to hunt, shoot fireworks, build without city permits," Shannon Blake said. "To have those freedoms just taken away was not OK with us."
Texas is unusual in that it leaves it to city councils to annex unincorporated land and doesn't require the approval of some other governing body. But the Republican-led Legislature has become increasingly sympathetic to homeowners like the Blakes, and on Friday a law will take effect giving voters in the more populated unincorporated areas the right to reject a city's attempt to annex their land.
Critics say the new law is an example of state overreach and could have dire consequences for Texas' burgeoning cities, depriving them of the room to grow and the ability to expand their taxing authority and streamline services.
The annexation battles have played out in the suburbs of Dallas, the countryside west of Fort Worth and near the sprawling Central Texas Army post of Fort Hood, among other places.
Courtney Butler and her neighbors organized after learning in August that Weatherford, near Fort Worth, was seeking to annex more than 1,000 acres, including their land. Butler, a 42-year-old school librarian with three small children, saw the move as a threat to the property rights of those whose land has been in their families for generations.
Weatherford officials said at the time that they were simply trying to manage development in the fast-growing region. But the argument carried little weight among Butler and others who saw it as a land grab. Weatherford abandoned its plan in September.
"Our No. 1 concern was that we were not going to be able to use the land as we've been doing," Butler said. "I think what the cities are going to have to do when they're looking to annex is they're going to have to work with you rather than just take you over."
The Texas Municipal League is among the chief critics of the new law. Its executive director, Bennett Sandlin, notes that cities in some states get up to 40 percent of their revenue from the legislature, but Texas ranks 48th when it comes to the amount of per capita aid it provides to its cities. This makes Texas cities heavily reliant on sales and property taxes for revenue to provide services, he said.
"You can't rely on your cities and give them nothing," Sandlin said. "That's a dangerous combination."
Several dozen cities in Texas have undertaken annexation at some point this year, he said, but a firm number isn't available because no agency tracks it.
Jim Brooks, director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities, argues that Dallas, Fort Worth and other cities in the Metroplex have shown how growth can be properly managed.
"As job growth and wealth growth and housing growth have come to these municipalities they've demonstrated that they're figuring it out and they've been largely successful and can manage this effort without interference of the state saying it can do things better," he said.