Critics of the law, however, express concern that it is just one more constraint in a line of recent state-level decisions to undermine the control of city governments.
And for regions like Central Texas where cities such as Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto continue to bolster their populations at extraordinary paces, the mandate has put a vise on planning, according to some local officials.
“You have to be very strategic in how you do [annexation]. Can you get there? Yes. Does it cost more? It does,” said Helen Ramirez, assistant city manager for the city of Hutto.
SB 6 restricts how much annexation authority municipalities now hold. Prior to the passage of the law, cities could annex land within their extraterritorial jurisdictions, or ETJs, into their city limits through voluntary and involuntary annexations and development agreements.
In cases of involuntary annexations, in which landowners do not readily consent to incorporation, a city would hold public hearings on the issue before sending the annexation to a vote before city council.
Now residents in ETJs retain more control in the decision-making process.
The bill was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on Aug. 15, 2017, after a contentious journey through the Legislature. State Rep. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, authored the bill.
“This is an historic victory for local liberty and the rights of Texas citizens over power-grabbing cities,” Campbell said in an Aug. 14 press release.
State reps. Celia Israel, D-Austin, and Larry Gonzalez, R-Round Rock, both voted in favor of SB 6. State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, was absent for the vote.
If a city now wants to annex land in its ETJ that contains less than 200 residents, more than 50 percent of those landowners must approve annexation through a petition. That decision ultimately moves to a vote by city council.
In counties with more than 500,000 residents—Travis and Williamson counties both surpass that threshold—municipalities must first petition for annexations and then hold elections.
Only residents living in the affected area proposed for annexation may vote on the measure, and the electoral process has added an air of uncertainty to municipal long-range planning efforts.
Elections can be costly—Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir estimated the March primaries to cost about $1.14 million—and a failed annexation attempt could throw a wrench in imminent development plans.
Ramirez points to an industrial corridor on the western edge of Hutto’s ETJ where the city would like to provide infrastructure in order to spur economic development. However, several residential neighborhoods are adjacent to the properties, and the city would possibly have to pass the annexation by popular vote.
“Where we would want to serve and improve some areas, we may not be able to, or it would be more difficult,” Ramirez said.
In the time since SB 6 was signed into law, Round Rock has annexed two tracts of land—one voluntarily and one in a development agreement—according to city documents. In 2017, Round Rock annexed 150 acres of land in two tracts using involuntary annexation proceedings, the first involuntary annexations the city completed since 2006.
“While it has not impacted any immediate annexation plans for the City it certainly could have an impact on future decisions," said Will Hampton, Communications and Marketing director for the city of Round Rock, in a statement provided to Community Impact Newspaper.
‘SWISS CHEESE’ EFFECT
“This is the kind of bill that’s going to take decades to feel the full impact,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.
More than 1,000 Texas cities are members of the TML, according to the group, and Sandlin said some member cities have already stated they have cut back on voluntary services in their ETJs. Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto are all members of the lobbying organization.
According to Pflugerville officials, the new annexation procedures can result in confusing and inefficient city planning.
For example, the city of Pflugerville in June finished annexation development agreement proceedings on a 6.97-acre plot of land off Pflugerville Parkway. The historic Pfluger House is located on the property, and the property owners requested annexation into the city. However, an unoccupied house sits within the property boundaries, and because that land is owned by another title holder, the city could not legally annex the property without a petition.
As a result, that plot of land—0.29 acres total in size—is technically still in Pflugerville’s ETJ. Pflugerville officials refer to this as the “Swiss cheese” effect.
“These little [properties] get further and further isolated. It’s unfortunate,” Pflugerville interim City Manager Trey Fletcher said.
That property, completely enclosed in Pflugerville city limits, is not eligible for city services, according to Fletcher. If the house at some point becomes occupied and its resident calls in an emergency, then it is in the Travis County Sheriff’s Office’s jurisdiction.
“It makes no sense, and it’s a fairly common occurrence,” said Pflugerville Mayor Pro Tem Omar Peña.
PLANNING FOR BUILD-OUT
Two-thirds of Pflugerville’s land area is unincorporated and subject to annexation, according to Fletcher. The expanse of ETJ land is 40.39 square miles total.
Most of that land is currently agricultural, and as landowners sell to developers the city will have to stay in front of the growth to provide essential infrastructure and city services such as water, wastewater and emergency services. Pena said if the economy slows down, and therefore development, the city will have more time to acquire annexed land.
“But at the current rate of pace, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that entire area at least plotted out in the next 10 years and built out within the next 15 to 20,” Peña said. “It could be faster.”
Pflugerville officials maintain that there is currently no “compelling reason” to annex the vast majority of that space. But as land starts flipping, they expect developers to come to the city for voluntary annexation.
Under SB 6, Pflugerville and Hutto will lean on voluntary annexations and development agreements to sufficiently plan growth. Ramirez contends that Hutto has to look solely at voluntary annexations or routes that may not involve residential land annexation whatsoever.
“We don’t want to be a sprawled-out community. We want a mix in our tax base to be able to lower the tax rate in the future,” Ramirez said.
Hutto’s future planning, per Ramirez, includes high-density apartment communities, master-planned subdivisions and business parks.
With less than one year of SB 6 officially on the books, local city planners are still learning “the rules of the game,” Fletcher said. City officials expect the issue to be revisited at next summer’s legislative session, though there is concern that annexation rules could be expanded—not relaxed.
“I don’t think overturning SB 6 in the short term is politically feasible right now,” Sandlin said.
Local officials referred to the Texas state Supreme Court’s June 22 decision to overturn city-imposed plastic bag bans as a troublesome instance of expanding state control.
“There is a concern [legislation] is not going to stop at [SB 6],” Ramirez said.