Annexation plans raise ire of residents

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

More than 30 defiant residents crowded into the Liberty Hill City Council meeting July 8, addressing the Council one at a time for more than an hour, to voice their opposition to plans to annex their properties into the City.

During the first of two required public hearings on the plan, many of those residents spoke out against the move, and have since organized and secured legal representation to oppose the annexation.

“It was fairly organic,” said Sean Covington of how the property owners organized. “After the meeting many of us stood outside afterwards and talked, grumbled if you will, about the process and what we had just heard. Lori Gallagher said we should get everyone’s e-mails and start trying to deal with the situation. We ended up with 30 or 40 right off the bat from people who showed up and e-mail chains and discussions started and we decided we needed to collectively organize to fight this.”

The group, identifying itself as Liberty Hill ETJ Annexation (LHEA), represents about 50 property owners, according to Covington, and is focused primarily on what residents say is an intentional effort to circumvent two new laws – SB6 from 2017 and HB347 in 2019 – passed by the Legislature to limit Texas cities’ ability to annex. The firm representing the group is The Martinez de Vara Law Firm of Von Ormy, Texas.

The decision to obtain legal representation was based on information gathered through researching the issue.

“After we had enough people pulled together and discussions were going, multiple people in the group suggested or talked about the possibility of legal counsel,” Covington said. “Myself, and another individual, Brandon Friemel, had both contacted the Texas Public Policy Foundation and spoke to them to kind of see what our avenues of recourse were. In talking to them, they sent both of us to the same attorney group and said we might require legal counsel. Everybody in the group decided that maybe we do.”

House Bill 347 eliminates involuntary annexation, but any annexation by resolution with service plan in place before the law took effect is exempt. The Liberty Hill Council unanimously adopted the resolution to begin preparation of a service plan on May 13.

“The issue at hand is the City has been looking into this for who knows how long, then at the last minute, along the lines of mid-May, said if they don’t get their service plan in place they would miss this opportunity and House Bill 347 will take effect,” Covington said. “They did that, then published the ad on June 27 and in doing so they grandfathered themselves into the process of involuntary annexation. That moved fairly quickly.”

What the group calls the sudden move to circumvent the new law is the prime reason the group is fighting the City on annexation.

“They are trying to circumvent the spirit and intent of the law that is currently in place,” Covington said. “Both bills intended to end involuntary annexation in the State of Texas and they are trying to circumvent that by using loopholes. That’s just wrong. If you want to annex a group, go to them and say ‘Hey, we’d like to annex you and let’s enter into a consent format and figure out who wants to be annexed and who doesn’t’.”

Mayor Rick Hall told residents at the July 8 meeting that the decision had not been made on annexation, but most could not be convinced their objections would truly be listened to.

The second of two public hearings is set for the July 22 Council meeting, but Hall said a meeting was set up specifically to address the concerns shared by Riverbend residents.

That meeting was 6:30 p.m. Thursday (July 17) at the Municipal Court Building, 2801 Ranch Road 1869.

“Every area and every citizen being affected by the annexation should be given an opportunity to speak so we can really discuss and have an open dialogue as far as their concerns,” Hall said. “It gives us an opportunity to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing and provide the service plan information.”

In an interview this week, Hall reiterated he was not completely sold on the annexation plan and residents shouldn’t assume it will happen.

“If we come back and realize the issues outweigh the annexation benefits then I’m sure the Council will vote against it,” Hall said. “I don’t know yet, I can’t speak for them, but I want to give the citizens every opportunity I can to speak their concerns and be able to answer them on a more detailed level.”

There are 94 properties listed for annexation, located all across the City’s Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ). Properties include the Riverbend subdivision, a group on the west end of town north of SH 29 and west of CR 200, some along SH 29 east, north and south of the highway, a handful along the west side of US 183 north of SH 29 and others north of SH 29 between CR 214 and RR 1869. The map of properties can be found on The Independent’s website or viewed at City Hall.

Covington said the LHEA group is representative of every area listed on the annexation map.

Beyond the way in which the annexation is being done, Covington said residents don’t believe the City is offering any services they truly need.

“Quite frankly a lot of these property owners require no services from the City whatsoever,” he said. “They have their own sewer, they have their own water. Some of us, like myself, have City water, but if I had to I’d have a well. I don’t need to be on City water. The point is, what services is the City going to offer by pulling us in and they couldn’t answer that question.”

The service plan drafted by the City spells out what services property owners would receive under annexation and includes police protection, environmental, health and code enforcement, planning and zoning, parks and recreation, solid waste collection, street maintenance and wastewater services, and details when those services must be provided.

Regarding wastewater service, the plan specifies that improvements must be “completed no later than two and one-half years from the Effective Date, provided however, if the services cannot reasonably be provided by then, the City shall propose a service schedule to provide full services no later than four and one-half years after the Effective Date.”

That time between being annexed and receiving services was an issue to a number of residents, including Steve Wilson.

“The City of Liberty Hill struggles to do what they do now, roads, water, the wastewater treatment plant that’s ruining the river,” Wilson said. “I think Sally (McFeron) said it’s three and a half to four years before you actually have to give us anything? So we pay taxes for three and a half to four years and we get nothing. I think that’s wrong. We don’t need the benefits that the City of Liberty Hill offers. You guys aren’t ready to do this.”

Speaking at the July 8 meeting, many residents shared a variety of other objections to the plan, including no current need for services, the potential cost to property owners in acquiring new services such as sewer, the additional property taxes and past experience with annexation.

“We have a septic system we’re on but we have City water,” said Brandon Friemel. “One of my questions is, what is the plan or regulation for dealing with (septic systems) if you do run sewer out to us? What would we have to incur as far as expense to close that septic down and then connect?”

Property owners can remain on their septic system even if annexed as long as it meets all health requirements.

“Basically the homeowner is responsible for a connection fee and then any plumbing that needs to go from the home to the street,” McFeron said.

Residents would be responsible for $4,100 in tap and impact fees for sewer services, plus any needed infrastructure between the home and public right of way.

City Administrator Greg Boatright said that annexation is justified because so many Riverbend residents are already on City water service and work is being done to bring sewer service to that area.

“We are currently in negotiation and acquiring easements along 29 to bring an 8-inch and a 6-inch line from west of our city limits down to our interceptor at Stonewall so there will be plenty of capacity for that neighborhood if and when they want to get on sewer,” Boatright said. “But, as has been stated, as long as you have a working septic system there is no reason for you to change and there is no reason for us to come in and try to force you on to sewer service.”

Some residents remember when Riverbend was annexed previously and then de-annexed because the City was unable at the time to provide required services.

“We got de-annexed at the time because our services weren’t being provided,” said longtime resident Marvin Mohler. “Until we get City services why should we be brought into the City?”

Residents doubt whether the issue with services would be much better this time around.

“For those of us who have been here long enough and have been through this before, I think there are some sour grapes,” Simpson said. “The idea of why (the City) backed off last time was because the services couldn’t be rendered. It’s just that simple. There was no plan in place, and I realize the infrastructure of Liberty Hill has changed, but at that point they could not guarantee any timeframe. The problem we get here is there is simply no greater services to be rendered to us for being taxed. The sentiment is we’re being taxed without representation.”

As far as a decision at the July 22 meeting, Simpson questioned why that was so important.

“We’re wondering if we have to vote on this in July?” he asked. “Can you not defer a vote on something that means a lot to all of us here so we have time for input and to question? I don’t see why we’re trying to do this so quickly. What it looks like from our side of the fence is you’re doing this because you’re trying to get this done in a way where we don’t have a say.”

Hall said this week that he didn’t believe a vote would take place July 22.

“I’m not 100 percent convinced that annexation of all the areas is what’s best, but in order for us to figure it out we have to have these public hearings,” Hall said. “I’m pretty confident we will push that vote back, rather than having it on (July 22) just because we do understand there are some questions that need to be answered.”

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