Leander officials say nothing unusual about cities trying to expand boundaries

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Editor’s Note: The Jan. 21, 2016, edition of The Independent featured a story on a boundary dispute between Liberty Hill and Leander. Leander city officials did not respond to the newspaper’s requests for an interview by press time last week. This week, The Independent includes that city’s viewpoint on both cities’ efforts to grow.

By CHRISTINE BOLAÑOS

LEANDER — The neighboring cities of Liberty Hill and Leander want to expand their boundaries amid continued growth, but that desire has led to conflicting interests among the entities.

“This type of thing is not unusual in growing communities,” said Tom Yantis, assistant city manager in Leander. “To have kind of a race to extend your boundaries — that just happens because everyone is looking out for their own best interests, so I don’t think anybody thinks it’s wrong for Liberty Hill to be doing that, nor is it wrong for Leander to be doing that. It’s just how cities grow.”

Liberty Hill officials are reaching out to area property owners inviting them to join the City’s extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ) in response to what officials believe is encroachment by the City of Leander into Liberty Hill territory.

The Liberty Hill City Council held a town hall meeting Monday evening to discuss the matter with property owners. Only one person spoke to the Council, and it was not clear how many in the audience attended the meeting for that purpose.

City officials in Liberty Hill say they are asking property owners to come into the ETJ in response to a notice they received from the City of Leander last month informing them the Leander City Council voted to terminate a boundary agreement between the two cities effective in May. The agreement set the boundaries of the two cities’ ETJs, but contained an exist clause allowing either entity to give the other six months notice should it decide to terminate it. The agreement renewed automatically each year if neither side contested it.

Liberty Hill City Manager Greg Boatright said Leander’s decision to end the agreement threatens the future of Liberty Hill.

But Leander City Manager Kent Cagle told The Independent this week that the boundary agreement was essentially a bad deal for his community and the City Council’s decision was made in the best interest of Leander.

After legally studying the agreement, Cagle said city officials there realized the Caughfield Tract — which is 187 acres in Leander’s ETJ and is part of a bigger tract of land being developed with parts going to each city — would go to Liberty Hill when it is developed.

“When we were negotiating with this developer, both cities were understanding that this was in Leander,” Cagle said. “Through our study of the boundary agreement (in 2006), none of us were here, and probably other than the Liberty Hill mayor, no one from Liberty Hill was there when it was agreed to.”

Once Leander officials realized the Caughfield Tract, which looks like a triangle of land on a map, was supposed to go to Liberty Hill, Cagle said they informed Liberty Hill.

“And they were unaware of that,” Cagle said.

Meanwhile, Leander officials question why their city had signed the agreement in the first place since it did not appear to benefit them.

“We didn’t think it was a good agreement and through further due diligence we found that this boundary had a six-month notice,” Cagle said. “That either party could get out of the agreement with six months notice.

“That is what drove our decision believing that it was a bad deal,” Cagle said. “There’s no reason to stay in a bad deal when we had a very clear method to get out of it.”

However, Liberty Hill officials believe there is more than meets the eye. In addition to ensuring Leander can continue to grow, they believe Leander officials were motivated after local voters in November 2015 approved a one-cent sales tax for the Williamson County Emergency Services District #4.

Cagle denies this.

“I think we’ve been very open, we don’t like (ESDs), but it’s not going to impact us,” Cagle said. “The ESD doesn’t impact us because when we annex the area, we get the sales tax and property tax and we provide fire service and they don’t. So no impact on our decision and before the City Council took action to send notice to end the agreement, I met with Greg (Boatright), and I explained how we got there with the Caughfield Tract.”

During the town hall meeting this week, Boatright said Leander does not want to be boxed in like Cedar Park is, meaning it would no longer be able to extend its boundaries.

He said Leander wants the area on State Highway 29 that reaches east of Ronald Reagan Boulevard to the Georgetown ETJ. He said Leander ETJ maps were updated to show the property in question is inside their jurisdiction. The maps are posted on Leander’s website and appear above.

“They’re doing it because they can’t grow east of Copper Ridge on State Hwy. 29,” Liberty Hill Mayor Connie Fuller said. “But the majority of land that would help them grow is to the west around Durham Park. They want to surround Liberty Hill and stop our growth, so that’s primarily what we’re concerned about.

“If we can get an ETJ line over to join the Bertram line then they can’t jump over our ETJ. That stops them,” Fuller continued.

Cagle insists this scenario is not in Leander’s long or short-term plans.

“The idea that we’re trying to encircle Liberty Hill is not possible, nor I would say, even desirable,” he said. “That would cover an immense amount of land and we don’t have a way to do it to the west. In the east, you run into Georgetown. I don’t see how it’s possible. I don’t know what they’re thinking about.”

At Monday’s town hall meeting, Boatright explained that a General Law City like Liberty Hill with a population of less than 5,000, can extend its population line by a half mile. Leander, a Home Rule City with a 5,000 population, has the ability to go beyond the full purpose annexation line of two miles.

“They’re at (CR) 281 now with city limits, so they have the ability from that point,” Boatright said. “Full purpose doesn’t extend to the west, but with a water line there, they can serve within a reasonable period of time with the water so there’s the ability right there to go at least two miles out 281.

“It’s kind of like playing (the board game) Risk,” he continued. “You try to figure out how to keep them from outflanking us. When it comes time to do projects and get things done and our ability to be favorable to the development community, our rules are better than rules Leander has in place. They just did a rewrite of their UDC that makes things more difficult.”

The town hall meeting’s purpose was to clarify Liberty Hill’s message to residents. About 4,200 letters from Mayor Fuller are being mailed this week to property owners inside the Liberty Hill school district that are in neither city’s ETJ.

The message?

“We want you if you are willing to come into our jurisdiction and we’d like to have the ability to include you in Liberty Hill’s future. We think that we have more to offer than Leander does,” Boatright said.

“There is a method to the madness because in the last legislative session, the Legislature went after cities’ ability to annex properties,” he added. “There were bills that would require the vote of those being annexed. So Leander is looking at that in the next session. There will probably be bills to deter or make it more difficult to annex. Cedar Park is locked in and they don’t want that to happen to them. You can see some reasoning behind what they’re doing, but it is detrimental to us.”

Cagle said he believes Leander’s decision to end the boundary agreement with Liberty Hill does not signal an end to a spirit of cooperation between the two entities.

“I think the idea that there’s this bad relationship is incorrect,” Cagle said. “They ask us to sell water to them. We’ve worked out an agreement to help them out; to sell them water. They’ve asked if there’s an opportunity to do more in the future and we responded affirmatively.

“Upon expanding their wastewater treatment plant they filed documents with TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) that indicated they were going to serve inside the City of Leander’s ETJ without notifying us,” Cagle continued. “So we filed a protest at TCEQ and then began working with Liberty Hill to work something out to avoid a contested case and litigation over the issue.”

Yantis said the settlement was worked out in 2015.

“I think in any relationship or partnership you’re not going to agree 100 percent on everything,” Cagle said. “Just because you disagree on one thing doesn’t mean everything’s bad.”

In response to Liberty Hill’s fear that Leander is trying to encircle it, Cagle insisted that is not Leander’s intention.

“We have no way,” Cagle said pointing to a map. “Here’s Georgetown. Here’s Liberty Hill’s ETJ. There’s no way around over here. We can’t continue to annex out into the west because we can’t serve anybody out there.

“It would take years and years of annexation and I still don’t think to the west is possible,” Cagle said. “And our boundary agreement with Liberty Hill is firm. We would have to annex all through the Balcones Canyonlands.”

He thinks the concern Liberty Hill is expressing is an attempt to scare property owners into voluntarily joining Liberty Hill’s ETJ.

Cagle said that while one boundary agreement is being done away with there is still another active agreement.

“The one that we sent notice to cancel goes from (US Highway) 183 to the east,” he said. “The other boundary agreement goes from 183 to the west. That boundary agreement has no clause in it and it’s there forever as far as we’re concerned.”

He also said contrary to what it appears Liberty Hill officials are saying, he told them Leander is willing to negotiate a new boundary agreement.

“The City of Liberty Hill was created (in 1999) because of Leander’s aggressiveness,” Fuller said Monday. “We wouldn’t even have our own town if they hadn’t tried to move in and take it. Talk to your neighbors. We need all the help we can get. It is a real possibility that in May you could be in Leander. There is a high risk of that.”

Boatright said the Leander intends to do full-purpose annexation on 3,200 acres. Assistant City Administrator Amber Lewis added that hearings in Leander will be held as early as April.

“Time is of the essence,” she said, adding that property owners who agree to join the Liberty Hill ETJ will not be assessed property taxes.

“There are no city property taxes in our ETJ,” she said. “And Liberty Hill has utilities closest to your property.”

“They need to know there’s a tax advantage,” added Councilman Ron Rhea.

Although neither city has the ability to levy ad valorem taxes in its ETJ outside the city limits, Liberty Hill’s current property tax rate is $0.527842 per $100 property value compared to Leander’s rate of $0.63292 per $100 value.

Since Liberty Hill was incorporated in 1999, it has held one involuntary annexation of property into its city limits. In October 2015, it annexed 116 acres.

Williamson County Cowboy Church Pastor Cory Ross said he would be speaking with his congregation.

“I think it is so imperative that this happens that I’m going to bring it up at the Ministers Alliance,” Ross said. “Our church has 800 members and a lot of them live on that west side, and I think we should encourage them to voluntarily annex for the sake of our city.”

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