Local Government

Rebel Yell

Tennesseeans fight back against the conquering cities.

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Most city officials in America, whatever their political party, share certain fundamental beliefs. They believe they have a right to annex any outlying area with an appealing tax base, then take their time delivering the services those taxes are supposed to pay for. And they believe they have a right to grab any parcel for which they might have a use–to seize a future landfill site, for example, before subjecting it to eminent domain. They rarely have trouble doing any of this, since state laws on annexation are usually written by people with the same beliefs.

But last year in Tennessee, the world turned upside down; the balance of power swung away from city leaders and toward residents of the areas they covet. For a few months, Tennesseans glimpsed the political order under which people actually want to live. It's somewhat different from the one officials have been imposing.

The story began in Fayette County, in the western part of the state. In 1996, the town of Oakland decided to annex a strip of highway that cut straight through the tiny rural community of Hickory Withe, splitting the latter in half. The people of Hickory Withe had no say in the matter: By Tennessee law, cities can take over any area within three miles of their borders (five miles if the city is as big as Chattanooga). All it takes is a vote of the conquering government. Tennessee is one of six states in which the people being annexed need not be consulted. If the annexees don't like it, their only recourse is to move–or fight it out in the courts, a lengthy and sometimes prohibitively expensive process.

But it so happens that Tennessee's lieutenant governor, John Wilder, comes from Fayette County. He was sympathetic to Hickory Withe's troubles and decided to help. Oakland wouldn't be able to annex any of Hickory Withe if the latter were itself incorporated. But it was too small (under Tennessee law, you need at least 1,500 citizens to incorporate) and too close to Oakland (new towns must be at least three miles from other municipalities). So Wilder sponsored a bill that would have made an exception for his former neighbors.

When it looked like that law would be too narrow to pass constitutional muster, Wilson drafted a new version that made it easier for any community to incorporate.

The new bill reduced the minimum number of citizens needed to start a town from 1,500 to 225. It also got rid of the rules restricting how close a new town could be to an existing municipality. On top of that, it gave new incorporations priority over annexation attempts. The new arrangement would last only a year, giving Hickory Withe time to incorporate without permanently tipping the balance of power away from cities.

The law passed quietly, entering the books in early 1997 under the bland name Public Chapter 98. If their later protests are to be believed, many legislators didn't even realize what they had voted for.

But the Tennessee Municipal League, the cities' lobbying arm, knew what the change meant: trouble. If word got out, it would be easy for rural and suburban communities to protect themselves against future annexations. On the other hand, the press hadn't paid any attention to the reforms, and the people who'd benefit weren't the kind of folks who kept up with such things. The Municipal League decided to keep quiet and wait for the law to expire.

That seemed like a good strategy, until lawyer Gordon Olswing overheard a Municipal League lobbyist fretting over Chapter 98 at a cocktail party. Word got out, and suddenly every Tom, Dick, and 223-plus Harrys was queueing up to start a new town. More than a dozen communities in Shelby County filed for incorporation, lest they be swallowed by nearby Memphis.

That city has a long history of annexing outlying neighborhoods, sucking up their taxes and then short-changing them on services. Local journalist Chris Lawrence, curator of the MemphisWatch Web site, offers two examples: "The recent annexation of the Wolfchase Galleria area has reduced police coverage to one police car per shift; the area's fire coverage is two Memphis firefighters in a pickup truck followed by a county crew to do the actual work." Furthermore, the Memphis schools are in the bottom third of the country; the county system is in the top third.

Not surprisingly, Shelby County residents jumped at the chance to ward off their hungry neighbor–and, sometimes, to ward off each other. After a collection of communities filed to incorporate as the city of New Forest Hills, part of the proposed city–Aintree Farms, a subdivision of about 300 people–declared that it would rather be a town of its own.

Because Memphis is poor and predominantly black, some city officials have argued that the incorporationists are nothing more than white-flight refugees shielding themselves from the Negro hordes. The thing is, a lot of the suburbanites are black. Hickory Hill, a particularly noisy independence-minded suburb, is 40 percent African-American; had it succeeded in incorporating, its school system would have been 60 percent black.

The movement wasn't limited to the Memphis area. In Carter County in the Southern Appalachians, a building filed for incorporation. The owners of the 216-unit Overlook Apartments decided to use Chapter 98 to shield themselves from nearby Elizabethton. Under the new system, a district could schedule a vote on incorporation by collecting signatures from one-third of its registered voters. With only 40 registered voters in the complex, that didn't take much work.

Residents of an unincorporated Sumner County neighborhood–home to country music stars Loretta Lynn and David Allan Coe, among others–decided they could use the law to their advantage, even though they didn't really want to become an independent city. Two towns, Goodlettsville and Hendersonville, had long been fighting for the right to annex the area, a little village near Nashville. Local opinion strongly favored Goodlettsville, a neighborly overlord at a mere 75 feet away. (Hendersonville, by contrast, was a distant seven miles.) Yet under state law, the people of Sumner County had no say in the matter. So they decided to incorporate as Mooneyville (after Loretta's late husband, Oliver "Mooney" Lynn) and then petition to be merged with the city of their choice.

Other areas–such as Middle Valley, near Chattanooga–didn't face an immediate threat of annexation but filed anyway, just in case any nearby city decided to grab them in the future. In those places, the debate often centered around which was worse: the risk of being swallowed by a city that might never come knocking or the taxes that a new town government would probably impose. As a result, the public discussion sometimes struck a fatalistic note. "I'm sure our taxes are going to go up whichever way it goes," one voter told the Chattanooga Times. "I just don't want to be annexed by Chattanooga."

The issue turned out to be moot. Reviled by the political establishment, Public Chapter 98 died on November 19, 1997, when the Tennessee Supreme Court struck it down. The "body of the Act," the court explained, was "broader than its caption," a no-no under the Tennessee Constitution. In other words, when legislators passed the law, they might not have realized what the bill said. Thus, the court declared, it was unconstitutional. The law died, and the young towns disappeared.

But the struggle over annexation isn't dead. Two veterans of last year's fight, Tom and Denise Jeanette, have founded a new lobbying organization, the Tennessee Suburban League. "The cities spend about a million dollars a year lobbying the legislature," says Tom, a computer engineer and 14-year resident of Hickory Hill. "The counties have at least a half-dozen different lobbying organizations. And there's been no one to represent the people–the residents of the rural and suburban areas."

The league wants to limit cities' ability to annex across county lines; to give people the right to vote on whether or not they'll be annexed; to require cities to present a plan to provide services to new territories within five years of annexation; and to preserve the right to a jury trial for citizens suing to prevent an annexation. Denise spends about three days a week in Nashville, "trying to put a human face" on the issue. She reports that legislators have welcomed her input.

Still, the reforms lawmakers are currently considering don't reflect that open spirit. One bill limits annexations across county lines but otherwise leaves the old problems in place. Worse yet, it introduces some new ones. It would require cities and counties to produce 20-year growth plans–a popular nostrum in urban policy circles, and a practical impossibility. It would also saddle cities with "urban growth boundaries." Despite their name, those lines don't restrict the ability of cities to expand; they restrict the right of rural and suburban residents to build on their property. The bill also prohibits rural areas from putting in sewer lines. In the Volunteer State, it seems, sewage systems are for cities only.

The other major bill is a compromise between the cities and the counties. As such, it deals with revenue-sharing issues but leaves residents' concerns mostly unaddressed. It eliminates the right to a jury trial and shifts the burden of proof in court. Cities would no longer have to demonstrate that an annexation is reasonable; plaintiffs would have to demonstrate that it is not reasonable.

"We're taking a balanced view," says Tom Jeanette. "Cities need to be successful, counties need to be successful–and suburban and rural residents have rights that need to be protected. In the past, the answer's always been just to move, but we like the areas we're in. We want to stay put. And fight for what's right."