Annexations? Look a little deeper
The Huntsville Times
Sunday, February 24, 2008

A newspaper prides itself on reporting issues in its community. In many cases, nobody else covers what we cover - local city councils, the county commissions, the Alabama Legislature.

And not everyone who reads the paper pays attention to the details. I think that's what is happening with regard to a proposal before the Legislature to keep outside cities - namely, Huntsville and Madison, but Decatur, too - from annexing land in Limestone County without the voters in that county having the final say.

Of course, annexed property remains in the same county but it also becomes part of a city. (Huntsville is a city in Madison County. So is Madison, and so on.)

While most people understand that, what they may not understand is the fact that the way annexation is presented generally misleads the citizens.

The fact is this: The only way Huntsville and Madison can annex land is if they are asked to by a property owner, period. Plus, the land in question must somehow adjoin land that's already in the municipality.

So the impetus for such annexations comes not from greedy, out-of-control city halls but from individual property owners who want to be part of one city or another.

Those opposed to such annexations know it's not popular to attack the little guy, so they rail and rant against the cities, the cities' elected officials and their planning staffs.

I repeat: Huntsville cannot of its own volition annex one square inch in Limestone County or anywhere else unless the owner of that square inch asks it to. The same holds true for Madison.

(Of the 607 square miles in Limestone County, some 71 square miles are in cities, but 40 of those 71 are in Athens. In other words, some 88 percent of Limestone County remains outside any city. Huntsville's incorporated area in Limestone County is less than 4 percent of the total area. Is this worth all the hand-wringing?)

But the way the question is usually framed - land grab by cities! - shapes the inevitable attitudes to the question. People need to look deeper. Why, for example, would someone in Limestone County want to join Huntsville, Madison or Decatur? The answer is services. Those services can include schools, sewer, water, police and fire protection, planning and zoning.

If the public at large doesn't understand why someone would want their property to be annexed, the people asking for annexation certainly do. Indeed, the majority of them see new limits on such annexations as infringements on their property rights. If the Limestone County bill passes, litigation would appear inevitable. I would not venture how it might turn out.

All of that leads to another question: Why would someone in Limestone County prefer to have Huntsville's services or Madison's services? They would prefer it because in many cases it's their only option.

For all but a few functions, county commissions in Alabama lack home rule. They can't pass zoning laws. They generally can't pass ordinances at all. They lack even limited taxing powers.

Any wonder why annexation appeals to landowners who are frustrated with the counties' inability to meet their need for services and facilities?

Finally - here I go again - counties don't have home rule because it's denied to them by the antiquated constitution of 1901. I would bet that most of the people asking to be annexed are not leading the fight to call a constitutional convention. But if they aren't, it's probably because they simply have not yet seen the issue in the context of its stifling effects on their lives.

If that's the case, I hope they'll soon come to understand where their interest resides, and it's not with the breathless people who blame annexations on the so-called bullies of the big cities.

John Ehinger's e-mail: john.ehinger@htimes.com.

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