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Zoning, Planning & Land Use Section Website › Newsletters › Land Use Law Quarterly, October 2012 › The Case Against Involuntary Annexation

The Case Against Involuntary Annexation

Article Date: Thursday, October 04, 2012

Written By: Robert E. Hornik, Jr.

The General Assembly’s 2010 and 2011 Sessions resulted in significant changes to the involuntary annexation Statutes.1 Historically, involuntary annexation was touted by local governments as an invaluable tool for keeping cities strong, growing and vibrant.  Certainly, when the involuntary annexation statutes were first adopted in the late 1950’s, that was among the purposes for their adoption.  Likewise, a fundamental justification for involuntary annexation has traditionally been to insure that adequate infrastructure is available to spur and control healthy economic growth in and around cities.  Over the years, however, the involuntary annexation process has been used for other reasons.  The purpose of this article is to provide some examples of “abuses” of the involuntary annexation process which led to significant opposition to it, and ultimately to substantial changes in the process.  Some of the examples provided in this article, while meeting the letter of the annexation statutes, do not seem to meet the spirit of the statute.  Others. . . well. . . I will leave that to the reader.

One of the basic equities recognized by the North Carolina Supreme Court in decisions involving involuntary annexation is that residents of an annexation area must receive some corresponding benefit from the annexation to balance the increased tax burden they will experience as a result of annexation. Nolan v. Village of Marvin, 360 N.C. 256 (2006).  The annexation statutes historically seemed to recognize this basic fairness, requiring that annexing municipalities had to provide a plan for the extension of municipal services, including police, fire, street maintenance and lighting, water, sewer, and garbage services, into the annexation area on the same basis as those services were provided within the corporate limits generally. See, e.g.., former N.C. Gen. Stat. 160A-35; similar provision now found at N.C. Gen Stat. 160A-58.53.

But the potential for abuse, particularly by relatively small cities offering relatively few services, is obvious.  Many municipalities do not provide water or public sewer services.  Many small municipalities do not have their own police force.  Many municipalities do not have programs for lighting or maintaining municipal street systems.  Some of these municipalities, seeing increased costs of governance and diminishing revenues from state and/or federal programs, needed to find a way to increase their revenue stream without increasing expenses.  Involuntary annexation provided an answer for some municipalities.

Another abuse of the annexation process involved cities that do have public water and/or public sanitary sewer services.  The annexation statutes, before amendment, used to allow involuntary annexations to proceed with the extension of services to follow.  The General Statutes formerly gave municipalities two years or more to extend public water and public sanitary sewer services into an annexation area.  However, in some documented instances, the actual extension of the water or sewer service into the annexation area did not proceed on schedule.  Annexation area property owners were being taxed by the annexing municipality, but promised, planned for services were not being extended.  The annexation statutes provided a remedy in the form of a writ of mandamus to compel the annexing municipality to extend services it had planned for and promised. See, former N.C. Gen. Stat. 160A-49(h); see also, Matheson v. City of Asheville, 102 N.C. App. 156, 402 S.E. 2nd 140 (N.C. App. 1991).  The statute also provided for at least the possibility of abating tax payments by the annexation area property owners until the promised services were delivered.  Former N.C. Ge, Stat. 160A-49(k).  But the mandamus process was seldom followed and some municipalities were able to collect taxes without providing required services for years.2

Some annexing municipalities also used strained interpretations of the involuntary annexation statutes’ “contiguity” requirement.  Generally speaking, the involuntary annexation statutes required at least one-eighth (or 12.5%) of an annexation area’s boundary to be contiguous with the existing, primary corporate limits of the annexing municipality.  Conflict sometime arose when an annexing municipality sought to annex a developing area, such as a commercial property or a residential subdivision that was not contiguous to the existing corporate limits.  The occasional result was “shoestring” annexation, where a highway or railroad corridor was included in the annexation area, and connected the municipal corporate limits to the annexation area like an umbilical cord or a shoestring. See, e.g., Amick v. Stallings, 95 N.C. App. 64, 382 S.E. 2nd 221 (N.C. App. 1989).  Moreover, once a shoestring annexation was successfully accomplished, all the territory fronting on the “shoestring” portion of the annexation area became contiguous to the corporate limits and, therefore, also susceptible to annexation.  Such oddly shaped annexation areas were probably not what the legislature envisioned in 1959.  

Recent changes to the annexation statutes have substantially changed the rules, in response to some abuses like the ones described above.  Certainly, the pace of involuntary annexation has slowed to a trickle compared to five or ten years ago.  The changes have also addressed some of the issues at the root of the abuses like the ones discussed above and have made involuntary annexation less attractive to municipalities.  •

Robert Hornik practices law with The Brough Law Firm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and can be reached at

End Notes
1. See, S.L. 2011-396 and S.L. 2012-11.
2. In fact, the only reported appellate case under this statute was Safrit v. Costlow, 270 N.C. 680, 155 S.E.2d 252 (1967).

Views and opinions expressed in articles published herein are the authors' only and are not to be attributed to this newsletter, the section, or the NCBA unless expressly stated. Authors are responsible for the accuracy of all citations and quotations.