By Richard Locker, CommercialAppeal.com
December 15, 2013

NASHVILLE — A state commission is recommending that the state legislature extend a moratorium on municipal annexations of residential and agricultural property for another year, to 2015, while an in-depth study of annexation law continues.

If approved by the legislature that convenes in January, the moratorium on annexation-without-referendums would be extended to May 15, 2015. Last year, lawmakers enacted the moratorium on such annexations by towns and cities that will expire next May 15.

The restriction applies only to annexations of territory primarily used for residential and agricultural purposes unless the property owners asked to be annexed. It does not apply to commercial and industrial property, which towns and cities may still annex under current law.

The recommendation was unanimously approved last week by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, an appointed panel of 25 state and local government officials and private citizens which — along with its professional research staff — studies issues and policies affecting the public and the separate levels of government. It makes recommendations to the General Assembly, which decides whether to enact them.

TACIR is chaired by State Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who last year asked the commission and its staff for a comprehensive study of Tennessee law governing annexation and urban growth. It’s the broadest examination of the issues since the General Assembly enacted a sweeping reform of the law in 1998. The 1998 law, called Public Chapter 1101, altered decades of Tennessee annexation law that gave municipalities some of the widest authority in the country to annex surrounding territory without approval of the annexed residents.

PC 1101 required every county to create coordinating committees of officials of all local governments plus citizens and other interests. The committees created growth plans for the county that included urban growth boundaries, where existing cities were expected to grow into; planned growth areas; and rural areas. In Shelby County, the law permitted the existing “annexation reserve areas” agreed to by the county’s seven municipalities to serve as the urban growth boundaries. Cities were able to annex in their urban growth boundaries without referendums — until the moratorium was imposed.

The examination of the law began when Republicans won control of the legislature and began pushing for referendums for all annexations not requested by the property owners.

TACIR recommended the moratorium extension after state Rep. Mike Carter, a Republican from Ooltewah, a Chattanooga suburb, pushed for the commission to recommend a new law permanently requiring referendums for annexations. But the panel refused Carter’s request and recommended the moratorium extension as a compromise while the study continues.

Carter promised, however, to pursue legislation for a permanent change in the law when lawmakers reconvene. The Tennessee Municipal League, which represents Tennessee’s cities and towns, said it will oppose Carter’s bill but will decide later what other changes it can agree to. “I don’t have a position at this point. We’re directed by our board,” said TML lobbyist Chad Jenkins.

Norris said he believes the legislature will approve one or the other. “Being an election year, I think there’s a strong sentiment favoring annexation by referendum, period. I think the prevailing sentiment is that people ought to have a right to vote. I favor that. Most states favor it.”

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