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Originally published: 2013-02-15 13:18:38
Last modified: 2013-02-15 13:18:38

ETJ bill sponsor defends proposal

by Anna Oakes

The sponsor of an N.C. House of Representatives bill that would give voters the option to ban municipal powers of extraterritorial jurisdiction and increase the percentage of votes needed to approve involuntary annexations shared his reasoning for the bill this week.

House Bill 79, introduced Feb. 6, would put a ballot question before North Carolina citizens asking them to vote "for" or "against" a "constitutional amendment requiring municipal annexations not requested by the property owners to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the voters in the area to be annexed, and prohibiting municipalities from exercising jurisdiction outside their borders."

A law passed last year requires a voter referendum on forced annexation, with a simple majority required to approve or defeat it. An ETJ, authorized by the state since 1959, is a defined area in the county outside of city limits that is subject to a city's zoning regulations, including the type, density and location of land uses. 

Rep. Larry Pittman of Concord, one of House Bill 79's primary sponsors, said the bill fulfills a campaign promise.

"People are tired of government entities running roughshod over them," said Pittman. "I am dedicated to standing up for the rights of our citizens and promoting the idea that government officials are our servants and employees, not our masters."

Pittman said the amendment would not bar voluntary annexation from occurring. 

"Annexation will not be impossible because of this," he said. "The proclivity of cities just to reach out and grab up all the land they can and expand their influence will be somewhat curtailed; but voluntary annexation can still occur. I only intend to make predatory annexations as difficult as possible. 

"The expansion of city limits is not a positive good," he added. "It means the loss of our rural and agricultural heritage and the diminution of gun owners' rights. Some growth will occur naturally, but cities should not be able to push 'plans for expansion' at the expense of the property rights of our citizens. The desire of cities to expand their tax base should not become rural citizens' problem." 

Pittman said towns in the state have engaged in a practice of misusing ETJ authority and water quality standards "to bankrupt farmers and push them off their land so that the land can be annexed and developed. Eliminating ETJ will help protect farmers from that practice." 

"ETJ is simply an injustice, which we must abolish," he said. "It is a matter of basic principle. So I want to put this into the constitution to make it clear that allowing a government entity to have jurisdiction over people who cannot vote on their election, whom they therefore do not represent, will not be tolerated any longer in this state."

Pittman said a constitutional amendment will "be a more solid way of protecting our citizens' property rights."

"A general statute is subject to be changed very easily by the next session of the legislature. However, just as it is harder to amend the constitution than it is to pass a statute, it is also harder to repeal an amendment," he said.

When asked about his support for the bill, Rep. Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson, who represents Watauga and Ashe counties, said he is not sure when or if the bill will come up for debate, adding that his comments may simply be speculative at this time.

"I think these are all great ideas that provide superior protections to private property owners and citizens of North Carolina," Jordan said, though he added that he doesn't have a strong opinion about the changes being in the constitution.

"Involuntary annexation is such a severe exercise of governmental power against its citizens that I agree with a change from simple majority to two-thirds for approval," Jordan said.

About the ETJ issue, Jordan said, "I see benefits to extraterritorial jurisdiction as a policy as was originally presented in the 1950s. Many municipalities -- though not all -- have been responsible and reasonable in their application of ETJs and providing for future growth. However, if citizens are given the opportunity to vote on this proposal and support such a change, municipalities and policymakers will have to come up with more citizen-oriented policies to support future growth choices."

The N.C. League of Municipalities has expressed opposition to the bill, stating the annexation proposal is duplicative and not needed and the loss of ETJ would create a "no man's land" of unregulated territories near urban areas.