By SHELLY WILKISON
City officials are contacting 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. See the current Liberty Hill ETJ map.
In December, the City of Liberty Hill was notified by the City of Leander that its 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 exit 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 that the decision of the Leander Council to terminate the agreement poses a threat to the future of Liberty Hill.
“They’re looking to infiltrate our area to basically surround us and limit what we’re able to do in the future,” he said.
Repeated attempts by The Independent to contact Leander City Manager Kent Cagle were unsuccessful by press time Wednesday night.
“We had a good agreement,” Boatright said. “They got what they wanted last time, and now they want more.
“They (Leander) have a council that’s aggressive in wanting to expand its boundaries,” he added. “They don’t want to be boxed in like Cedar Park.”
Boatright said Leander wants the area on State Highway 29 that reaches east of Ronald Reagan Blvd. to the Georgetown ETJ. In fact, he said Leander ETJ maps have already been updated to show the property in question inside their jurisdiction. The maps are posted on the Leander city website.
“They have already done some of their offensive moves in that they show Copper Ridge and properties along 29 we feel are in our jurisdiction on their maps already,” he said.
Additionally, Liberty Hill officials believe Leander will look to expand its ETJ to the west, which could effectively encircle Liberty Hill.
“So we have to play defense now in order to protect what we want to include in our city in the not-too-distant future along 29,” Boatright said. “And, they aren’t going to be negotiating with us as was earlier agreed upon for the property between their city limits and the South San Gabriel River on Bagdad Road. That was the understanding that if we put a water line in they would agree to release that between (CR) 281 and the river.”
Liberty Hill Mayor Connie Fuller said the City is trying to get ahead by encouraging property owners in the unincorporated area of the Liberty Hill ISD to join Liberty Hill’s ETJ before they get annexed by Leander.
Liberty Hill is sending about 9,000 letters to property owners this month along with an application for voluntary annexation.
It is a strategy that worked for Liberty Hill in 2006 when many responded that they preferred to be in Liberty Hill’s ETJ as opposed to Leander or Georgetown where the potential was great for annexation into those cities. At that time, Liberty Hill added 36,000 acres to its ETJ, Fuller said.
Fuller said once inside the Leander ETJ, which extends two miles beyond the current Leander city boundaries, property owners must comply with ordinances that are more restrictive, and can expect to pay higher taxes once officially annexed into that city.
She explained that Leander, as a Home Rule City with more than 5,000 population, can annex property involuntarily if it can provide city services to property owners within three years.
“If you go into Leander (ETJ), they can involuntarily annex and tax you,” she said. “With us it’s just coming into our ETJ, and there is no taxing in the foreseeable future.”
“Our UDC regulations are a lot less stringent than what Leander’s currently are,” Boatright added. “It’s an easy choice from that standpoint.”
As a General Law city, Liberty Hill has an ETJ that extends only one-half mile from its city limit boundaries. Its current population is 1,070.
Boatright said once a property owner chooses to become part of Liberty Hill’s ETJ, it would be difficult and costly for Leander to challenge or reverse that.
He said he had spoken on multiple occasions with Cagle and Mayor Fuller has spoken to Leander Mayor Christopher Fielder about the issue. Fielder was serving on the Leander Council at the time the boundary agreement was adopted, Boatright said.
“I don’t think they have any misunderstanding about how we feel about this,” Boatright said.
“My expectation is that on May 20th when it (the boundary agreement) stops that they (Leander) will be ready to annex all this property,” Fuller added. “If we don’t cut them off before then, we will lose territory.”
Boatright said the City of Liberty Hill has no legal recourse until “we get into a disagreement over territory. Once the lines are drawn literally that’s when legal action would come into play and that’s when our attorneys would become involved.
“They (Leander) are trying to flank us, trying to encircle us,” Boatright said, which would limit Liberty Hill’s ability to grow.
“It would limit us because we would be surrounded by Leander and Georgetown. It would limit our ability to expand our boundaries,” he said. “It’s not that we are aggressively out there wanting to expand our boundaries. It’s that we feel like we need to protect our ability to grow in the future and not have Leander dictate that to us.”
Bertram Mayor Dickie Allen said his city could also be effected by Leander’s efforts to expand its ETJ.
“If Leander encroached on us, we would do the same thing,” he said, referring to Liberty Hill’s campaign to appeal to property owners.
“If Leander encircles Liberty Hill, we would be squeezed between Leander and Burnet,” Allen said. “We’re General Law like Liberty Hill, and both of them can annex. It would be the same problem Liberty Hill is having. We would do the same thing, we would go for a campaign to get more territory into our ETJ.”
Allen said the City of Bertram is not likely to “bump heads” with Liberty Hill because both are General Law cities, separated by about five miles.
Boatright said he believed the boundary agreement between Leander and Liberty Hill should have better protected the interests of Liberty Hill.
“Anytime you have a boundary agreement it should be for a longer period of time,” Boatright said.
Fuller, who was on the council at the time the agreement was adopted said Liberty Hill had limited resources then.
“They made the best deal they could,” Boatright said. “It was a compromise, and not a good one on the part of Liberty Hill, but it was dealing with limited resources.”
He said he did not know whether the City’s agreement with Georgetown contained similar language.
“I feel confident that the people in the Liberty Hill area will rally together and stop this,” said Fuller. “Otherwise, if they don’t they (Leander) will encircle us.”
Boatright said he believes the Leander Council became focused on expansion toward Liberty Hill in recent months after the Williamson County Emergency Services District #4 pushed adoption of a 1-cent sales tax in the fire district outside the city limits of Liberty Hill. The ESD’s service area includes a portion of the Leander ETJ along Reagan Blvd. When voters approved the tax in November, the City of Leander lost the ability to capture that one cent from future commercial development there.
“I think they’re hacked off,” Boatright said. “They see that interfering with what they had planned.”
Then, when the City of Liberty Hill involuntarily annexed some commercial and residential property along SH 29 about the same time, Leander city officials “took notice,” Boatright speculated.
He said despite the current boundary dispute, the City’s agreements with Leander on water and wastewater service are sound.
“We thought we had a good working relationship with the City of Leander and that if we had a disagreement we would be able to go to one another and work out our differences,” Boatright said. “It was surprising and disappointing to find out that this is the avenue that they’re going to take in trying to basically outflank the City of Liberty Hill.”