LELAND — It won’t be easy for Leland to get the ETJ it’s seeking.
ETJs — Extraterritorial Jurisdictions — allow municipalities to extend planning control outside city or town limits. The Town of Leland hosted an ETJ workshop Tuesday afternoon, in which officials learned more about complexities than benefits.
The Cape Fear Council of Governments prepared an ETJ presentation for the town during its special meeting, offering staff and Council a deeper understanding of the land use tool.
No action was taken at the workshop. A Cape Fear Council of Governments senior regional planner encouraged town officials to hold off on ETJ research and planning in order to incorporate it with the town’s forthcoming land use plan.
New ETJs are less common today. When the statewide appetite for involuntary annexations was greater, ETJs were considered a precursor to annexation that was either likely or bound to happen, according to Allen Serkin, Cape Fear Council of Government’s local government services director.
Before the legislature pared back municipalities’ involuntary annexation powers in 2012, Serkin said it’s likely government officials weren’t giving ETJs much thought. Now that annexations have nearly halted statewide, Leland has continued to extend its corporate limits in recent years through both voluntary and involuntary annexation efforts.
Brunswick County currently has eight ETJs (view ETJ map below). Each is located in central or southern Brunswick County. Leland wants one of its own, and so far, the county has informally turned down the idea twice.
At a county meeting in January, Commissioner Pat Sykes said she was concerned ETJs serve as a pathway to force annexation on residents outside town limits. Chairman Frank Williams said he wouldn’t want to operate under a town-controlled zoning if he didn’t have a vote on that town’s council.
Because of Leland’s population size, and the county’s participation in enforcing land, zoning, land, and building codes, the town can’t enact its own ETJ. Leland is reliant on Brunswick County’s permission, which is entirely up to the County commissioners’ discretion. Serkin said state statutes do not establish any standards for ETJ approval or denial.
“It certainly has worked fine,” Serkin said about ETJs in the county. “I think the question is: is the county willing to do it again?” Serkin asked at the workshop.
Pros and cons
Generally, ETJs allow municipalities to create more uniform corporate limits. And in Leland, where the town’s boundaries have sporadically grown, an ETJ could help smooth out the county-to-town transition.
If an ETJ was approved, Serkin said the town could receive additional revenues from development fees. This could create a hiccup for the county, he said, which has likely staffed its planning, zoning, and building inspection departments according to existing populations.
ETJs can help streamline the annexation process, Serkin said. However, if a municipality is already enforcing development regulations in an ETJ, Serkin said it removes a big “carrot” for developers to join the town.
Imposing more stringent municipal regulations inside an ETJ could result in higher quality development, which in turn, could increase property values and increase the tax base. But that increased property tax check won’t go to the town.
“I mean, listen, the county gets the tax revenue either way,” Serkin said, meaning with or without an ETJ, property outside the town falls in the county’s tax base.
This creates a money problem: A municipality spends taxpayer funds to study creating an ETJ, to lobby for getting it passed, and later, to enforce ETJ regulations outside town limits.
“So the citizens are bearing the cost of regulating land use outside of municipal limits and their taxes are supporting that,” Serkin said.
This creates a voting problem.
“Politically they don’t have a whole lot of power,” Serkin said about ETJ residents. People living in the ETJ have limited political means to object to ETJ enforcement activity. They don’t get to vote in municipal elections, and the county loses its ability to act in ETJ bounds when certain powers are surrendered to a town.
“They have county representation, but the county has no authority to impose those regulations on the municipality,” Serkin said. “That representation is — I don’t want to say it’s meaningless — but it’s certainly not as impactful.”
There’s also the possibility for enforcement confusion. Thinking back to his time as a planner in Shallotte, Serkin said county and municipal governments aren’t always on the same page about which entity enforces which rules. If a new ETJ is established, inevitably, Serkin said it creates nonconforming situations. This complicates things for property owners, especially when financing agencies and realtors get involved at the time of a sale or land use change.
Getting the county on board
In 2018, Leland’s manager told Council the county had “no interest” in giving the town an ETJ.
Earlier this year, Mayor Brenda Bozeman arranged two meetings, one with Brunswick County Chairman Frank Williams and a second with Commissioner Mike Forte. Councilwoman Pat Batleman attended the meeting with Forte; town manager David Hollis attended the meeting with Williams.
Bozeman said Williams spoke with all Commissioners, and each was against granting Leland the ETJ. After the meeting, Batleman said she was not happy about the lack of discussion about the pros and cons. “It was just no,” she said at a Council agenda meeting in March.
On Tuesday, Batleman said she would have preferred county officials participate in or attend the town’s ETJ workshop. She also asked whether it was prejudicial for the county to have eight ETJs and not grant Leland one.
Before the workshop, Brunswick County Manager Ann Hardy said she was unaware of any county staff planning to attend. Each Commissioner also told her they did not plan to attend.
“The issue that we have is getting them to actually sit down with us and having a big adult conversation,” Batleman told Serkin.
Councilman Bob Corriston said the frustrating part of the county’s resistance is Leland is driving a large portion of the property tax increase to the county. Recent tax revaluations in Brunswick County will bring 10 percent more revenue. New development in unincorporated areas of the county, Oak Island, and Leland is driving increased property values this fiscal year.
“We don’t get the respect from the county,” Corriston said at the workshop.
Serkin cautioned the town on complications ETJs present and offered solutions to mitigate them.
Wes MacLeod, Cape Fear Council of Governments’ senior regional planner, said initiating a genuine public input effort could serve as a starting point for a public ETJ discussion. Serkin suggested the town engage with property owners in the proposed ETJ boundaries and bring them to a neutral or favorable stance. If property owners are comfortable with the idea, Serkin said it could reduce the county’s concern about adequate representation.
“It just seems like a fairly monumental effort to do that,” he said. “But it might be possible.”
Instead of separately studying land outside town limits for the ETJ, Serkin suggested folding research efforts into a future land use plan.
Ben Andrea, Leland’s Planning Director, said the town will share its new land use plan — last updated in 2016 — sometime next year. Typically, land use plans are updated every five years, Andrea said. “The town is growing quickly, a lot has changed, it’s important we revisit what those plans and policies say to make sure that we’re still on the same track or the track we want to be on,” Andrea said.
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