TACIR Report Recommends Changes to Tennessee's Annexation Laws

Thursday, March 12, 2015 | 10:35am

Nashville, TN, March 4, 2015 – An unprecedented moratorium on most annexation in Tennessee will soon be lifted, and a new scheme requiring consent from landowners or referendums for all annexations will go into effect.  The state legislature made this change in 2014 and tasked a state policy group, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, with reviewing the new law and related statutes to determine whether other changes might be needed to fully implement it.  The Commission just released its report, which is posted on its website.

Among its recommendations are allowing cities to annex land that is not adjacent to the city to support economic development without annexing those who wish not to be taken into the city.  Other recommendations include clarifying agricultural land that cannot be annexed by referendum and developing a less costly alternative to referendums that preserves the requirement of consent while allowing non-residents who own land in the area to participate in the decision whether to annex.

The legislature established the initial moratorium on annexation in April 2013 to prevent annexation of residential and agricultural property and expanded it in April 2014 to stop all new annexations except for those with the written consent of landowners.  Cities have been able to complete annexations that were initiated before the moratorium took effect but only with county commission approval.

After the moratorium expires this May 15, cities will not be able to annex agricultural property without the written consent of the owner, and if they want to annex other types of property, they will need the written consent of all the landowners involved or they will have to hold a referendum.  Under current law, only registered voters who live in an area being annexed may vote in annexation referendums.

Both the written consent and the referendum requirements may create unintended problems for landowners who want to be annexed by cities in order to develop commercial or industrial property but have people living between their property and the city who don’t want to be taken into the city.  The report suggests giving cities a way to annex these non-contiguous properties without annexing the property in between to accommodate economic development in a timely fashion and meet the community’s needs without taking in unwilling residents.  The report points out, however, that cities and counties need to work together to determine how best to provide services in the unincorporated area in between as well as to the annexed area.

Although the new law prohibits cities from annexing “property used primarily for agricultural purposes” without the written consent of owners, it does not define the meaning of this phrase.  This could lead to confusion for cities and landowners alike.  The report recommends more specifically defining the agricultural land that can be annexed only with written consent.

And although the new law created a more inclusive annexation process, it still does not allow non-resident landowners to vote in referendums.  It also potentially increased annexation costs for cities since referendums can be expensive.  To resolve these problems, the report suggests allowing petitions as another way to gain consent.  Petitions could be cheaper than referendums and could allow businesses and other non-resident landowners to participate but should retain the protections provided to residents by referendums.

The Commission also recommends requiring the state’s county growth plans to be reviewed and updated.  The plans, required by a law passed in 1998, are now more than ten years old, and the growth projections they were based on are out of date and do not reflect the effects of the recent economic downturn and recovery.

A number of other issues and recommendations are made in the report, including some related to annexation and growth planning, cities’ plans of services for annexed areas, deannexation, retracting urban growth boundaries, the number of required joint economic and community development board (JECDB) meetings, and JECDBs authority.

The full report is available on TACIR’s web site.  For more information, contact Leah Eldridge, Research Manager, by email or by phone (615) 253-4241.

TACIR Mission

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) serves as a forum for the discussion and resolution of intergovernmental problems and provides high quality research support to state and local government officials to improve the overall quality of government in Tennessee and to improve the effectiveness of the intergovernmental system to better serve the citizens of Tennessee.