City hears from property owners concerned about possible annexation

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By SHELLY WILKISON

It was standing room only inside the Liberty Hill City Council Chamber Monday as four people shared their concerns and questioned the City’s plan to annex their properties into the city limits.

During the first of two scheduled public hearings on the City’s plan to annex 313 acres or 127 parcels of land into Liberty Hill, commercial and residential property owners complained that involuntary annexation would mean higher taxes, and costly impact fees to connect to city sewer.

It is the City’s first attempt to use its legal ability to involuntarily annex property since it was incorporated in 1999. Although some properties have come into the city limits voluntarily in recent years, City Manager Greg Boatright said the city needs to expand its boundaries.

Boatright said from the year 2000 to 2010, US Census figures show Liberty Hill lost population dropping from 1,100 to 967.

“We have lost population,” Boatright said. “And it is a constant battle to fill board positions and draft them (residents) into running for council. We want to reach out and include residents in the peripheral with no voice in our city.”

While the City can also offer new citizens and businesses access to sewer service, police protection and other amenities, some in the audience Monday expressed dissatisfaction with the plan — particularly when it came to explanations about projected costs.

“If you wanted to annex us, why didn’t you just ask us?” said Clint Stephenson. “We could have negotiated that instead of just coming and taking it (the property). We should get something in return.”

Stephenson said he recently purchased acreage on the north side of State Highway 29 across from Elena’s Mexican Restaurant where he plans to build storage buildings.

Boatright said sewer is currently available on the north side of SH 29, and the properties targeted for annexation already have equipment installed.

Planning Director Sally McFeron explained that the law requires a General Law City like Liberty Hill to follow certain guidelines when implementing involuntary annexation. The property proposed for annexation must share a contiguous boundary with the city, and must already be served by utilities. While the properties in question may not be connected to the sewer, the equipment is in place, which qualifies as service.

In the case of the commercial properties, a portion of each is already inside the city limits, Boatright said.

“We want to make these half parcels whole and come into the city,” he said.

“Nobody volunteers to be annexed,” Boatright said. “It probably hasn’t happened before now because they never had the staff to look at a plan that would help the city. It doesn’t make sense the way it has been for the last 15 years. Whole parcels should be in.”

Boatright explained that the majority of revenue generated by ad valorem tax in the city goes to pay city sewer debt, yet many businesses outside city boundaries have access to sewer service.

“We have businesses on our utilities, but they aren’t carrying their fair share of the burden (paying costs of infrastructure),” Boatright said. “We would like to spread it (costs) out to users. If utilities are there, the city can annex (the property).”

In response to a question about costs to connect to city sewer, Boatright said it would be $4500 per LUE per 3000 square feet of commercial space. A different conversion applies to restaurants. For a residential connection, the price is $3500.

Once connected to city sewer, a residence is billed $44 per month for service and a commercial property is billed $54 per LUE per month.

Property owners currently connected to a private septic would be required to connect to sewer if the septic system fails. Property owners with no restroom would not be required to pay an impact fee until such time as water and sewer service was added.

“If your septic is okay, you’re not forced to connect. But if your septic has a major failure, we (the City) will do all we can to get the line to you,” he said.

He added that property owners would not be required to collapse existing septic systems once connected to city sewer.

In the case of residences along Independence Drive and commercial property along Jonathan Drive, Boatright said the city will begin working right away after annexation is complete to develop a plan for getting sewer lines built along those streets.

Yes, new taxes

“Believe me, I understand that taxes are at the forefront of every discussion,” said Boatright, a former county commissioner. “And this city council didn’t go into this without serious consideration.”

The Council recently adopted a tax rate of $0.527842 per $100 property valuation. On a property valued at $200,000, for example, the owner can expect to pay $1,056 in taxes to the City of Liberty Hill in addition to Liberty Hill ISD taxes, Williamson County Emergency Services District #4 taxes and Williamson County taxes.

If the Council approves an ordinance to annex the property in October as scheduled, the additional taxes will apply to the property in January 2016.

One residential property owner on Independence Drive said if the city annexes her property, “we’re going to lose our house. That’s it for us,” she said. “We bought what we could afford.”

“So if we don’t want this, you’re taking us anyway?” another resident asked.

“Yes, we can,” replied Boatright. “But this is not set in stone. We’re trying to listen to you. If I lived on Independence Drive, I would welcome the ability to have the city relieve me of the liability of street (repair and maintenance) and septic failure.”

In response to one resident’s question as to why the City is not attempting to annex larger subdivisions, Boatright used the example of Sundance Estates and Sundance Ranch. He said the city would not be able to afford the infrastructure to bring sewer service to the large lot subdivisions with minimal customers.

A definition of ‘area’

Chip Somerville, an Austin attorney representing Ali and Linda Zalzala, who own commercial property within the area proposed to be annexed, inquired as to how the city is interpreting a new state law that went into effect in June. The law requires the written consent of a property owner if 50 percent or more of the area to be annexed is commercial property.

City Attorney Elizabeth Elleson said “area” is defined as the entire area scheduled for annexation rather than one piece or parcel.

“We did an analysis for commercial property. It has to be utilized now as commercial use. It is 30 percent commercial, not 50 percent, so consent is not required,” she said, to which some in the audience responded “unbelievable.”

The Mayor’s plea

“When I first came in (to the Council), we desperately needed sewer. The Health department was on us. They said if we didn’t get sewer they would red flag houses where septics were failing, and there were a lot of them,” said Mayor Connie Fuller. “At that time, 75 percent of the people in the city were on fixed income. That’s why we ended up with a big debt trying to save the city.

“We need the help of the entire community, not just of the people barely making it. We need everyone to come in. We need everyone to help make this city viable,” she said.

She said in the past, people outside the city limits were frequently mad about the makeup of the council or decisions they made, but they had no vote and no representation. Annexation will remedy that.

The Council has set a second public hearing on the proposed annexation at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 28 in the Council Chamber. An individual wishing to speak has three minutes. Questions of city staff are answered at the completion of the public comments.

The Council will vote on an ordinance to annex the properties in October.

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