Monday, November 27, 2000

Municipalities rush to expand borders

Proposal would add annexation hurdles

By Kevin Aldridge and Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The city of Mason just gobbled up another 114 acres. Morrow wants to tack on 150. Developers are pushing hard to add 450 acres to Lebanon's city limits. All three are among Ohio municipalities that are rushing to annex outlying areas to bring in population and tax base in case a new state law is passed making it harder for cities to expand.

        Senate Bill 289, given even odds of passing next month, would be the most sweeping annexation law in the state in 35 years. It seeks to lessen decades of acrimony between cities that have had wide leeway to take valuable land, and unincorporated townships that have lost the land to expanding cities.

        But whether any new annexation law can improve regional cooperation, stop the bickering and lead to smarter suburban growth is any body's guess.

        “Essentially, the bill will change the way annexations are decided,” says Mike Cochran, president of the Ohio Township Association. “From our perspective, it will change the law in a much fairer way.”

        If the bill becomes law, townships would have a greater say in whether annexations occur. County commissioners would no longer be compelled to approve most annexations. Instead, they would have to consider an annexation's effect on a township before allowing it, and townships could collect property taxes on the land for up to 15 years.

        But some municipal leaders say the law would give townships too much power. They say the “anti-annex ation legislation” would stymie economic development and give townships near-veto power over annexations.

        “We may have seen the last of annexations in Ohio as we have come to know them,” Mason Mayor John McCurley said. “Annexation is the way many cities have grown and developed in Ohio. Now, the ground rules are changing, and cities will stop developing as they have in the past.”

Turf battles

               Nowhere in Southwest Ohio would the law be felt more than in Warren County, the state's second-fastest-growing county after Delaware, north of Columbus. While annexations have slowed in older communities in Clermont and Hamilton counties, cities in Warren County have completed more than 200 annexations for more than 23 square miles in the past decade.

        Mason, Ohio's second-fastest-growing city behind the Columbus suburb of Hilliard, has nearly doubled in size, to 17.6 square miles, in the past decade.

        Since 1989, Mason has annexed almost 5,600 acres or 8 square miles — most of which has come from an unwilling Deerfield Township. Mason's population, too, has more than doubled, to 18,850, due both to annexation and new construction.

        Mason leaders are so concerned about the potential law's impact that they're urging outlying property owners to seek annexation now “before it's too late.”

        “We told everyone who we thought might want to annex that this could be their last chance to do so without risk of litigation,” Mr. McCurley says. “We've had a number of annexations challenged by (Deerfield Township) over the years under the current laws. I can only imagine those numbers will increase under this new bill.”

        Mark and Kim Schappacher, who live on Mason-Montgomery Road in Deerfield Township, are among those seeking to become Mason residents to gain access to the city's water and other services.

        “In my opinion, it's our right as property owners to annex without any interference from any government entity, especially the one that we are trying to annex away from,” Mrs. Schappacher says.

        Township officials say they only want to protect their borders, not deny anyone's rights. They say Senate Bill 289 actually would make the process quicker and easier for unopposed annexations.

        “We certainly don't want to lose any of our property to any other municipality, but if a person wants to annex and a city wants to annex them, there's not much we can say,” Turtlecreek Township Trustee Jim VanDeGrift says.

        Supporters say, too, that the bill would protect property owners who face annexation into cities against their will.

        John Howard is one of 19 homeowners in northern Deerfield Township included in a proposed Mason annexation. He doesn't want it.

        “Under the current law, people like me have no recourse,” says Mr. Howard, a township resident since 1988. “The city just comes in here and scoops me up and that's it. To me that's not freedom. I want to live where I choose and I have no desire to go into the city.”

        The new law, says Sen. Robert R. Cupp, R-Lima, would allow Mr. Howard to object at an annexation hearing and avoid being annexed, if he makes a strong enough case.

"Lack of civility'

               As arcane as some of the finer points are, debate about Senate Bill 289 touches on larger issues of regional cooperation and smart suburban growth.

        Current laws, says Deerfield Township Trustee Bill Morand, “foster a lack of cooperation and a lack of civility between cities and townships.“

        “There is no reason why a city would want to help or work with a township when they have the ability to steal their land,” he says.

        Mr. Morand speaks from experience. Deerfield Township has lost several tax-rich parcels such as Procter & Gamble property and Paramount's Kings Island to the city of Mason.

        Annexations have created so much tension between Mason and Deerfield Township that some leaders there barely speak to one another or work cooperatively on projects beneficial to the region.

        But not everyone thinks a new annexation law is the answer.

        “I would like to say that there will be no more battles between townships and cities if this (bill) passes, but I know better,” says Mr. Cochran, the township association official. “Townships will have more voice, but that doesn't mean cities will be any less aggressive.”

        Some city leaders anticipate the number of lawsuits will increase under the new law, as will the amount of time it takes for a piece of land to actually get annexed into a city.

        “It will make annexations extremely difficult, if not impossible,” Mason City Manager Scot Lahrmer says. “Whenever you start chipping away at the way a city develops there are going to be ramifications.”

        Advocates of Ohio bill face hurdles

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