Many county landowners oppose city annexation

A low-water crossing over Brushy Creek on CR 177 in Leander runs directly between city-governed property to the north and county property to the south, which is among land Leander City Council has proposed to annex in April.

A low-water crossing over Brushy Creek on CR 177 in Leander runs directly between city-governed property to the north and county property to the south, which is among land Leander City Council has proposed to annex in April.

Dozens of residents filled Pat Bryson Municipal Hall in March during public meetings to oppose Leander City Council’s plan to annex 2,003 acres of privately owned land in 16 city-designated areas—one of the largest involuntary annexations in the city’s history.


About 40 Williamson County residents, who live in seven of the city-designated areas, spoke during two public hearings.


One resident said he might be open to annexation, but all other residents who spoke said they did not want their lands to be annexed, in part because the change would require them to pay city taxes and be subject to city building and zoning codes.


City Manager Kent Cagle said Leander has often annexed land since the city incorporated in 1978. He said about 70 percent of the city’s annexations have been voluntary, or at landowners’ request, and about 30 percent of annexations have been involuntary and usually done because  the city wants to stay ahead of economic growth.


“Our criteria [for this annexation] was looking for areas that are ripe for development,” Cagle said.


Mockingbird Hill Road resident Darrell Word and CR 177 resident Rick Bott were among residents who spoke against annexation. They said they bought county land because they wanted to escape expansions of Austin and other cities.


“I thought I’d be left alone to do what I wanted to do with the 10 acres I purchased,” Bott said.


Residents who spoke live on land located in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ. Their properties are included in the council’s proposal to annex 18 total designated areas of land.


Two smaller areas are tracts owned by the city, but the other 16 areas designated by the city include more than 50 privately owned separate land tracts that comprise the 2,003-acre total.


Another Mockingbird Hill resident, Anthony Perez, said he uses portions of his property in the county for an orchard and for ranch animals.


“I’m not sure what [the city code] is going to do to that [land use],” Perez said. “It kind of terrifies me.”


CR 268 resident Shawn Wolff said he lives in one area set for city annexation, and he said city taxes would overburden him.


“We are pawns—lines on a map—which this city wants to use to extend its control in the county,” Wolff said. “Caught in the middle of this political struggle are landowners like us.”



Annexation rules and reasons


State law requires the city to hold two public hearings as part of the involuntary annexation process. During March public hearings, council members did not directly respond to residents’ comments. But city staffers such as Cagle were available during and after each meeting to answer further questions and to discuss the city’s process and purpose of the involuntary annexation with landowners.


Cagle said residents who move to a city’s ETJ to avoid growth will soon find the city’s growth catching up to them.


“Someday we’re going to annex everything that’s in the ETJ, so we won’t get substandard development,” Cagle said. “The decisions the council makes on annexation help set property tax rates 10, 20 or 30 years in the future. If you have higher-quality development, you’re going to have a higher-quality tax base and therefore the opportunity for lower [property tax] rates.”


State law limits involuntary annexations. Each year a city council cannot perform involuntary annexations of tracts with a combined size larger than 10 percent of a city’s existing size. However, a city can also draw from potential annexations the city did not use in a previous year, Cagle said.


Some state legislators have proposed laws that would further restrict annexations. In 2015, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, proposed SB 1639. The bill would have made several changes to city annexations allowed in Texas, including a requirement that a city cannot involuntarily annex land without obtaining a majority of signatures or votes from residents in those areas. The state Senate approved the bill, but it did not clear a House committee.


Jon Oliver, chief of staff with Campbell’s office, said Campbell plans to file a similar bill in 2017.


“Absolutely we are discussing ways to reform the annexation process in Texas,” he said.


Cagle said city staffers took potential legislation into account while proposing annexations.


He said city leaders have two main reasons for the proposed annexation. He said the first reason is to support the city’s unified vision for areas projected to experience growth.


“[We want to] have city development codes and zoning in those areas,” Cagle said. “[Some county residents] have plans to build RV [and] boat storage and [other businesses] that people don’t like to see on a major thoroughfare. … There are lots of commercial, retail, even residential uses that would have more value than RV or boat storage, metal buildings or mechanic shops.”


For instance, the city’s future land-use map—a document meant to guide future zoning decisions—recommends two small neighborhood retail centers in northwest Leander near CR 279/Bagdad Road. The proposed retail sites are partially located outside the city limit.


Cagle said the council’s second reason for annexation is to ensure county residents pay for city services they receive.


“They’re using a lot of city parks and streets,” he said. “Some of them get city fire protection.”



Receiving city services


County residents who live in  Leander’s ETJ have city addresses, but pay county taxes and do not receive some city services, such as utilities including water and sewer services. They receive emergency protection through the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.


Cagle said city emergency responders are often closer to county residents and can respond quicker than county officers, meaning county residents who do not live in the city benefit from the city.


If the council approves involuntary annexation, those landowners would become full residents of the city of Leander. They would begin paying city property taxes and would officially receive coverage by Leander’s police and fire departments as well as animal control.


Leander Police Chief Greg Minton said although these residents do not pay for police services and do not often report emergencies, city officers still respond to their calls.


“If we’re called, we’re going to help [residents]” who live outside the city, Minton said. “They don’t pay for that; we don’t charge for that. … They kind of have a hidden layer of protection because obviously they’re paying for Williamson County [Sheriff’s Office services]. But we’re there as a backup.”


Residents who are annexed may also choose to pay hookup fees to connect to the city’s public utilities system and pay bills thereafter for service.


However, several landowners told the council they did not want or need city utilities because they were happy with their private wells for water and septic tanks for sewage.


Cagle said residents of annexed properties are not required to pay for city utilities, which are funded through separate city public utility bills instead of through city property taxes. Most houses within the areas proposed for annexation are located near available city utility lines, he said.


“A lot of city services [would be] available immediately” after annexation is approved, he said. “Water is available very close to all those areas. Sewer is a different matter. It’s hit or miss.”


Valley View Drive resident Chuck Griffin said he doubts the city can provide new utilities in annexed neighborhoods.


“I’m actually okay with being annexed if all the city services were to be provided,” he said. “[But] it’s completely economically infeasible for the city to provide wastewater there. The lots are too large. The houses are spread too far apart.”



Council OKs exceptions


City Council members first proposed annexing 3,207 acres. But after the two March hearings and an April 7 meeting the  council had revised the proposed annexation to 2,003 acres.


As of April 7 the council had approved 21 agreements for 974 acres that qualify for agriculture, timber or wildlife exceptions to annexation. Cagle said the city can annex the tracts in five years or if owners develop the land. He said the city will continue to consider more development agreements with county residents until April 15.


On March 17 the council voted to remove about 230 acres first proposed for annexation, which included the Creek Meadow and Valley View subdivisions. But residents of both neighborhoods told city staffers they wanted a separate agreement with the city so they can stay in the ETJ but pay for city fire protection, possibly through Williamson County Emergency Services District No. 9.


Creek Meadow resident Skyler Williams said residents were in favor of the council’s vote.


“Involuntary annexation­—I understand the case for and against it,” Williams said. “Cities do need to grow and they need to annex and they need to control new development. Me personally, I think they need to focus their efforts on areas [without homes] that will be developed … not placing undue burden on existing residents.”

By Stephen Burnett
Stephen Burnett has been a community journalist since 2005. He joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in November 2013. For the cities of Cedar Park, Leander and northwest Austin, he covers city and county government, business, development, events, transportation, utilities and more.


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