Monday, August 15, 2022

Leland annexation bill passes, most leaders tight-lipped on its reasoning

SB 911, sponsored by Brunswick County Sen. Bill Rabon, reduces the amount of distance from which Leland could annex. It also restricts the area of its satellite properties — those isolated from the main town  — and prevents residents from agreeing to voluntary annexations to gain utility access they think will be withheld from them otherwise. (Port City Daily/File)

LELAND — Legislation that would curtail Leland’s annexations — at least within a mile-and-a-half radius — passed the House vote yesterday after a unanimous vote in the state Senate last week.  

SB 911, sponsored by Brunswick County Sen. Bill Rabon, reduces the amount of distance from which Leland could annex. It also restricts the area of its satellite properties — those isolated from the main town — and prevents residents from agreeing to voluntary annexations to gain utility access they think will be withheld from them otherwise. 

Under the new law, the maximum distance of noncontiguous land Leland could annex would be lowered from 3 to 1.5 miles from incorporated limits (the original bill proposed a two-year ban on annexations). Any satellite annexations cannot equal more than 10% of the primary limits. 

Rabon is the singular sponsor of the bill, meaning he is the only one that can offer  reasoning behind its proposal. However, he did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Brunswick County Rep. Frank Iler, who introduced SB 911 on the House floor Tuesday, said, while he could not speak to Rabon’s thoughts, he hinted the senator might be concerned about Leland’s growth as it relates to the area in which Rabon lives. 

According to Leland property records, Rabon owns eight parcels in Winnabow with two houses on Cherrytree and Crabapple roads. The former is over 5 miles away and the latter is over 3 miles away from corporate limits, so it would take multiple annexation expansions to put each address in jeopardy. 

“I would think it would be a concern if he doesn’t want to be taken into Leland — and his neighbors,” Iler said. “I don’t want to get too much into that and the different possibilities, but this is a fairly mild way to take care of that issue.”

In January, Leland had to quell rumors that it was planning to forcibly annex Winnabow. State law prohibits forcible annexation and requires a referendum vote or property owner petition for the action. 

Leland’s rapid expansion — 14 annexations just this year — keeps gobbling up land closer to Winnabow, prompting the area to seek town incorporation to stave off Leland’s reach. In recent years, land along U.S. Highway 17 has been scooped up in accordance with the growth guidebook, Leland 2045. 

Leland’s town limits show expansion southeast along U.S. Highway 17. (Town of Leland).

Leland has doubled its population since 2010, outlined sustainable development parameters in its 2045 plan, adopted last November. It identifies the Highway 17 corridor, a major road connecting Brunswick County regions, as prime real estate for an “economic development hub.” 

One strategy on community building is to “incrementally expand town boundaries based on infrastructure, adjacencies with existing development, economic opportunity, the availability of community services, and need.”

The plan supports using Leland’s FlexCode, or code of ordinances, to create nodal communities connected by various transportation modes. The plan is also dedicated to promoting the town’s job base through adequate space and zonings, and build out more non-commercial space for industrial uses and business parks. 

Leland 2045 advocates for water and sewer planning that “supports the growth management plan in an environmentally supportive way.”

The third part of Rabon’s annexation bill aims to prevent municipalities from using access to “public enterprise services” — public transportation, utilities, cable — as leverage in annexation promotion. 

Citizens filing annexation petitions now have to state they are not basing their decision on any threat that a utility available outside the town will be withheld from them. The area has three providers: H2Go, Brunswick County and the Town of Leland.

Last year, H2Go made an agreement with Leland to solely provide services for residents within Leland’s city limits. It is broken up into a patchwork of providers — some residents use H2Go for both services, while others rely on the town for one or both. 

READ MORE: ​​After years competing, Leland and H2GO agree to merge utility systems

H2Go also has customers in Bellville, Navassa and some unincorporated areas, but they subscribed to the sanitary district before its agreement with Leland. 

Therefore, a new customer outside of Leland or an area that already has H2Go services will have to annex into the town. Else, residents will need to procure sewer and water from another provider. 

“This [bill] says that cannot be a requirement,” Iler explained. “The owner has to say there’s not any representation that a service would be withheld without the petition for annexation. You can’t withhold services in exchange for being annexed.”

It is unclear how the bill will be enforced aside from preventing the mention of utility access on a petition.

Water and sewer service in northeastern Brunswick County (Town of Leland).

H2Go Executive Director Bob Walker claimed Leland and H2Go, like other municipalities, use services as a “carrot” to get people to voluntarily annex into the town. He said Greenville and Fayetteville have similar setups with utility commissions.

If annexed, towns can then add the area to their tax base. 

“Leland is not doing anything different than anyone else,” Walker said. 

“Trying to single out Leland and H2Go as an anomaly and we’re the only ones doing this — that’s completely wrong.”

Iler observed utility access was a major concerns for citizens in surrounding areas; he said many were not keen on voluntary annexation, but wanted H2Go services. 

Port City Daily reached out to all Leland Town Council members; they refused to comment and directed questions to Leland spokesperson Jessica Jewell, who didn’t answer direct questions but gave a statement:

“The town is aware of SB 911 and is monitoring it,” Jewell said. “The town values the good relationship it has with Sen. Rabon and has had discussions on the matter.”

Sen. Michael Lee and Rep. Deb Butler both voted in favor of the bill. 

Butler declined to comment, saying Leland was no longer in her district. 

Lee spokesperson Chase Horton said: “Deference is given to the senator that sponsors a local bill.” He said Lee would not be able to talk in depth on its content because of the nature of the legislation.

The term “local bill” means the legislation only applies to one or more specific governments, usually put forth by the representatives from that government’s congressional district. The Senate vote passed 45-0 and the House 110-3.

Moving forward, Walker does not anticipate the bill to have a large impact on operations. 

“That really doesn’t change anything Leland or H2Go is doing,” Walker said. 

Update: The article has been updated to reflect H2Go is a sanitary district, not a company. Port City Daily regrets the error.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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