City backs off on annexation

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

A plan announced in May to initiate involuntary annexation of more than 90 properties within the City of Liberty Hill’s ETJ met its demise Monday amid cheers and shouts of victory by many of the property owners.

The City Council voted unanimously (4-0) to end the attempt, but emphasized the effort to annex was not over, saying the City will now make an effort to negotiate agreements with individual property owners.

Mayor Rick Hall – who was absent from Monday’s meeting due to a family emergency – indicated at the July 18 meeting that he did not support taking a final vote on the annexation plan at this week’s meeting, but the Council instead took the issue into executive session and returned after a 20-minute discussion and voted to end the involuntary annexation process.

Council member Tony DeYoung’s motion called for City staff to meet with property owners and offer annexation development agreements or non-annexation agreements in place of the plan for involuntary annexation.

“We didn’t back off from it because we will now get back together with them,” said Mayor Pro Tem Liz Rundzieher after the meeting. “Mainly what most of them were upset about was the way it was done, not asking them or talking to them.”

Council members did not speak on the issue before or after the vote Monday. Only Council member Steve McIntosh has spoken out publicly on the issue since the process began, posting last weekend on his Council Facebook page about what he termed the “aggressive, accusatory and sometimes demeaning manner” in which residents addressed the Council on the issue.

The 10 residents who spoke Monday stayed on the same issues shared in two previous meetings, focusing concerns about future wastewater service and its costs, limitations on livestock, future permitting concerns and the objection to City taxes.

But the prime flashpoint in the debate is what property owners claim was the City’s intent to push the annexation proceedings through quickly to circumvent a new law that would force the issue to go to a vote.

The Council and City staff denied that the annexation plan was initiated in response to the new law.

“We’ve been here to speak mainly in opposition to this annexation,” said Sean Covington, a Riverbend resident. “I’ve spent a lot of time learning about annexation for the last week. Some of you have been doing this for a long time and you know the rules. I think sometimes you utilize those rules in potentially inappropriate ways. Just because the law says it, doesn’t make it right. This is one of those situations. The law doesn’t always make it right.”

Some residents applauded Hall for what they called his effort to create an all-inclusive community representing those in and outside the city limits.

“Just because we are ETJ, and others – less than 2,000 people are in the city limits, we are a community,” said resident Lori Gallagher. “We help each other, our kids play sports together, our kids go to school together, I pay Liberty Hill ISD taxes, we are a community. I feel like we are a community.”

Gallagher also singled out City Administrator Greg Boatright over the issue, blaming him for the planned annexation, even as there had been no previous indication from current Council members that they opposed the effort as they voted unanimously in May to move forward with developing a service plan for annexation.

With involuntary annexation off the table City staff will begin putting together a plan for approaching individual property owners regarding voluntary annexation.

Many residents said throughout the three meetings that the service plan proposed by the City was vague and incomplete.

“Telling us you are going to annex our properties and then not having a detailed service plan, which July 18 we discovered is a binding contract between the City and those being annexed, is asking a lot of the people you wish to annex,” said Wesley Sandlin. “Let’s pretend for a minute I was Apple Computers and I wanted to build a factory in the City of Liberty Hill. If I wanted to hire 1,000 people here and I said to the Council ‘make it attractive to me’ the City Council would jump through hoops, move mountains and do everything possible to get my company to the City. But for the individual taxpayer the City doesn’t really care.”

Many of the residents who spoke during the meetings said they would negotiate with the City on annexation if it was done on a voluntary basis.

Liberty Hill Director of Planning Sally McFeron said the staff will take a look at the situation and begin formulating a new plan for approaching property owners.

“We’re going to take a step back and reanalyze these particular areas and what we’re going to do,” she said. “We need to devise a plan basically for reaching out and getting that done. It’s 104 property owners. We just need to look at it and start working toward our goals in particular areas.”

Under voluntary annexation, the City has a couple of options.

“There are two agreements that the City can go and offer and it depends on whether or not you have City services or City services are available,” she said, citing the example of residents in Riverbend with City water. “We would go and offer them an annexation and development agreement. In this particular agreement it basically is just the ability to extend our municipal planning authority over the land.”

The second option is more about future use of a property.

“The other one is a non-annexation agreement and basically that one says that you do not come into the city limits unless you make a connection to the sewer line or you have an application for development of the property,” McFeron said.

After the vote Monday, though, residents have the right to reject either option and not consider annexation at all.

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