That dirty word: Annexation

Where do Asheville’s city limits end?

Wherever city officials want them to, Riceville Road residents fear.

Their Buncombe County valley lies just north of the V.A. Hospital, and well within the reach of Asheville City Council members — who have been toying with the A-word recently. In North Carolina, annexation is a primary method for cities to collect more property taxes, as long as the annexed areas meet state-mandated population-density and urbanization criteria.

Riceville just might meet those criteria, much to the dismay of residents: Under state laws, Asheville could annex them whether they like it or not.

“Our clock is ticking,” Riceville resident Cynthia Edmonds warned a group of more than 60 neighbors who banded together on March 19. “We can’t sit around and wait for somebody to [help] us, or we’ll end up in the city of Asheville.”

That prospect didn’t sit well with her neighbors. Shaking their heads, they flipped through the pages of an annexation fact packet that Edmonds had handed out.

According to Edmonds’ estimates, annexed Riceville residents could expect their taxes to double, in some cases.

Longtime Riceville resident Syd Bartlett wanted to know if it were really true that Asheville City Council members had proclaimed a moratorium on annexation this year.

Edmonds confirmed that they have — although Council members have also hired a consultant to give them the low-down on how to annex and what areas adjacent to Asheville might be eligible under state law.

But these residents were not the kind of folks who throw in the towel at the first sign of trouble.

“I want to fight! I don’t want [annexation] to happen,” declared Bartlett.

“[The city] isn’t going to take and tax my property!” Riceville Road resident Johnnie Oakes chimed in.

“We have time to fight this,” Edmonds assured them both. For the past few months, she has been tracking Council members, attending their meetings and retreats, gathering information from city planning staff, and doing her homework. She learned that, if the city decided to annex Riceville that very day, the state-mandated process would take at least a year, probably more.

Bartlett glanced through Edmonds’ information impatiently: He had read it all before, in a previous meeting. “I just want to know … are you telling me we can postpone being annexed by filing a lawsuit [against the city], or is it going to happen anyway?” he asked.

“It’s coming,” Edmonds replied. Council members are talking about it, city officials cite a “need” to collect more money to pay for rising infrastructure costs, and North Carolina laws give Asheville the authority to annex.

What are county residents to do? If and when Asheville tries to swallow up Riceville, one option is to sue.

Skyland residents did just that in the late 1980s, and they won: The court found that the area slated for annexation wasn’t populated densely enough to meet state criteria.

Annexation can also be fought in court if the city doesn’t adequately plan for providing water, sewer, garbage, police and other city services to the area, Edmonds noted.

In either case, a legal battle is costly, she said, and victory is not assured. Edmonds suggested another route, saying, “The only way we can have peace and prosperity is to get North Carolina law changed.”

To that end, one N.C. State Representative from Buncombe County, Wilma Sherrill, has proposed a bill to prohibit Asheville annexations. Theoretically, it could pass this summer. But that’s not likely, say some political observers, because another county representative, Democrat Martin Nesbitt, is steadfastly against it.

Local bills are more likely to get adopted in the state House if all that county’s representatives support it, political observers point out. That puts a spark in this fall’s state race: If county residents can oust Nesbitt, some figure, an anti-annexation law could make it onto the books.

Republican candidate for state representative Mark Crawford saw the conflict as an opportunity to campaign. He attended the Riceville meeting and proclaimed, “What we have to do is fight as long as we can — until we get good people [representing us] in the state legislature.”

“Amen!” someone called out.

“Give me a chance to go down [to Raleigh] and kick some butt!” Crawford continued.

He had an instant gang of supporters.

But changing the annexation laws in North Carolina would take time. So Bartlett challenged his neighbors to pitch in for Riceville’s legal defense fund, urging, “Let’s do it!”

Many Riceville residents are retirees and others live on fixed incomes, Edmonds mentioned, noting that not everyone could afford to hand over the $900 that Bartlett was promising to contribute.

So, enter a few old community stand-bys: One Riceville resident stood at the door when the meeting started, asking, “How ’bout a ticket to the pancake breakfast?” Inside, a group of women sold cookies, brownies, coffee and other goodies. A Riceville man sold tickets for a raffle; another hawked tickets to a barbecue dinner in May.

It’s all to raise money for Riceville, a little at a time. “If we have to fight the city of Asheville, it’s going to cost money,” warned Edmonds, estimating that lawyers’ fees could approach $70,000. “It’ll have to come out of our pockets.”

As the meeting wound down, Edmonds added a little more fuel to an already smoldering fire: If Sherrill’s anti-annexation bill does pass, it might trigger a little paragraph at the end of the regional water agreement involving the city and Buncombe and Henderson counties. That paragraph gives Asheville the authority to raise water rates in unincorporated areas of the county if the city isn’t allowed to annex, Edmonds indicated.

That’s on top of growing consternation about revaluation (another dirty word in Buncombe County, these days).

Folks mulled it all over, flipping through Edmonds’ handout but saying little.

“Don’t think it can’t all happen,” Riceville resident Barb Hendrick warned her neighbors, saying that cities are under pressure to grow financially so they won’t deteriorate. Hendrick mentioned the case of Jacksonville, N.C.: Years ago, county residents there said they would never be annexed. But the city swallowed up the surrounding county, one piece at a time. Now, Hendrick reported, “the whole county is in the city of Jacksonville.”

Folks in the audience just mumbled as the meeting broke up. If revaluation doesn’t get them, annexation just might; and if that fails, there go their water rates. “We already pay too much for all that,” one elderly resident grumbled as she left the community center.

Edmonds urged residents to join the relatively new Riceville community organization — Good Neighbors of Riceville — for $5 a year. In May, the members will be invited to help elect a formal board of officers. Partly to stave off annexation, this grassroots union of neighbors could try to incorporate the valley into its own, independent town.

But that’s all down the road.

Riceville resident John Laney peered at a map that Edmonds took to the meeting. It highlighted recent annexations and outlined what the city calls its extra-territorial jurisdiction: county areas within one mile of the city limits — areas that are within the city’s zoning jurisdiction. Those areas are all increasingly urbanized and prime targets for annexation. And each time the city annexes, that one-mile radius stretches farther out.

“They say ‘zoning’ is a bad word around here — but is it worse than that ‘annexation’ word?” Laney reflected. Looking to see whether his home is within the one-mile zone, he decided that county zoning might not be so bad (although it wouldn’t protect Riceville from annexation).

Hendrick studied the map, too. She’s a retired nurse living in Botany Woods, a Riceville subdivision located a stone’s throw from the existing city limits. “I’m … living in one of the areas most likely to get annexed,” Hendrick said. “I moved into the county 22 years ago because that’s where I wanted to be — not [in] the city.”

So how does she feel about the city’s argument that it needs to annex to sustain healthy growth — and to build its tax base?

“That’s a bunch of bull,” she retorted, then apologized for the outburst.

Hendrick conceded that Asheville is in a tight spot financially, with its growing infrastructure expenses and decreased funding from the state and federal governments. Just the same, she argued that annexation simply adds to those burdens, “stretching the city’s police, water, sewer, garbage and roads.

“Something has to give — and it’s the county residents,” Hendrick concluded. And if the city does end up annexing Riceville, Hendrick worries that it may not be able to provide city services as fast as it collects the new tax revenues.

Fielding questions as people left for the evening, Edmonds stressed her frustration that county residents have so little say over their own annexations. In North Carolina, cities can choose between two annexation processes; each requires a public hearing, but neither calls for a vote by the people who would be affected.

“The law is on the city’s side,” Edmonds argued. “But where’s the voice of the people? We have none.”

Having attended several Council meetings, Edmonds said she’s aware of the financial pressures the city of Asheville faces. “I’m sure [Council members] feel that by annexing, they’re helping the whole community,” she allowed. “But we should have a voice, and annexation shouldn’t be a way for them to balance their checkbook or make up for poor management.”

For information about Riceville’s community-organizing efforts, call Edmonds at 298-7744.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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