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NC judge strikes down new way to limit annexations

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A state judge on Tuesday struck down the state’s new method for giving citizens of unincorporated areas the opportunity to block forced annexations by towns and cities.

Judge Shannon Joseph issued a written order Tuesday throwing out the petition process authorized last year by the General Assembly.

The measure halted a municipality’s effort to expand its borders if enough property owners in the targeted area said no. The case is likely to be settled in the appellate courts.

The Republican-led Legislature passed laws last June that overhauled the state’s involuntary annexation rules, which have guided municipal growth in the state for more than 50 years.

The laws said proposed involuntary annexations by cities would be terminated if 60 percent of the landowners in the targeted areas signed a petition within a roughly four-month period opposing it. Also, the town or city would be barred from trying again for three years.

Several municipalities with pending annexations sued late last year, arguing that the new method was unenforceable because it only gave landowners, not all voters within the area that could be acquired, the right to decide.

Joseph agreed after two hours of arguments Monday in Wake County Superior Court. The judge ruled that two local laws and portions of a statewide involuntary annexation law enacted in 2011 were unconstitutional and void.

Property owners surrounding Lexington, Kinston, Fayetteville and others already have used the process to halt pending annexations.

The petitions involving those involuntary annexations and a handful of other pending cases now have no effect, Joseph wrote, meaning the annexations could potentially resume if her ruling isn’t overturned.

Jim Eldridge, a Wilmington lawyer representing residents who lived near four municipalities and got the chance to overturn pending annexations, said he will advise his clients to appeal the ruling. An appellate court could issue a stay delaying Joseph’s order until after appeals are completed.

The state Attorney General’s Office, which also defended the laws in court with Eldridge, plans to review the ruling, a spokeswoman said. However, the office of Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said it understands the attorney general plans to appeal.

While many property owners in unincorporated areas have long chafed at being absorbed by cities and having to pay higher taxes, city leaders have said the previous laws had served the state well by helping cities such as Charlotte grow at a manageable rate.

Source: Gary D. Roberton, Associated Press