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Rural Reserve Area Under Threat of Annexation


2014/04/01

By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

The values of rural lands – ecological, conservation, economic, lifestyle, food and materials sources, etc. – are often overlooked or not fully understood by decision-makers in a “growth and development” dominated milieu. Traditionally, land developers have seen only the market value of putting buildings on “vacant” land, while urban planners and decision-makers, too, have focused on the dollar signs of increased property taxes, as built land is valued higher than undeveloped, or “vacant,” land.

However, traditional rural landscapeshaveaholistic, complex character that expresses a unique sense of place, a key component of theidentity of their residents. Many traditional rural landscapes are exponents of sustainable land-use acquired over years of rural landscape practices that respect the natural characteristics of theland, maintain the biodiversity and the rich cultural diversity.

Rural landscapes provide a wide category of amenities, such as agriculture, forestry, preserving irreplaceable species, habitats, and ecological functions for present and future generations. Land change is the major threat to biodiversity and to valued resource protection, such as ground water as a drinking water source.So, careful protective management of these ecological, economic, and cultural resources iscrucial for present and future generations.

Aldo Leopold recognized the important role that individuals play in protecting and preserving the health of a community. One of his philosophical achievements was the idea that ‘community’ should be extended from just people to include non-human elements, and so his concept of a “Land Ethic” was published in A Sand County Almanac in 1949. “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land,” he wrote.

But the nation still lacks a “land ethic.” From the mid-twentieth century to the present, rural land throughout the U.S. was quickly being consumed by suburban development and municipality annexation. According to the 2000 census, Tennessee had the fourth fastest rate of land development in the nation, based on data from the Natural Resources Inventory. In response to the growth problem of urban/ suburban sprawl, Tennessee developed a statewide framework for growth policy, called Public Chapter 1101. The Growth Policy Act of 1998, aka PC 1101, required local officials in each of the 92 non-metropolitan counties to shape growth policy through the development of 20-year growth plans. The intent of the legislation was five-fold:
  • to eliminate annexation or incorporation out of fear;
  • to establish incentives to annex or incorporate where appropriate;
  • to more closely match the timing of development to the provision of public services;
  • to stabilize each county's education funding base and establish an incentive for each county legislative body to be more interested in education matters; and,
  • to minimize urban sprawl.
However, the immediate result in most counties was a “land grab” by municipalities to delineate their “urban growth boundaries” (UGBs), lands earmarked for future annexation. They could also establish Planned Growth Areas (PGAs) and Rural Areas (RAs). Two Rural Reserve Areas were designated in Shelby County, TN, “the area in the northeast sector of Shelby County…It is overwhelmingly rural in character, supporting large farm operations, open space, and concentrations of forested areas.” A second one is in the northwest sector of the county near Shelby Forest, plus “all of the area contained within the direct Mississippi River sub-basin north of the Memphis City limits to the Tipton County line.”[source: Shelby County document: http://shelbycountytn.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/663]With the addition of PC 1101 to the Tennessee Code Annotated on May 19, 1998, residents of rural areas breathed a sigh of relief from the threat of suburban development and annexation, expecting they would reside in a Rural Reserve Area in perpetuity or, at least, for the next 20 years. “The notion that 1101 expires in 2018 is unclear. The prevailing wisdom is that the 20 year growth plans remain in effect subject to amendment,” wrote Tennessee Senator Mark Norris re: Chapter 1101.

The northeast Shelby County, TN residents’ expectations of remaining in a rural unincorporated area were dashed on February 18, 2014, when a small group of primarily subdivision residents in unincorporated Bolton, TN, led by Chris Price, presented a petition with 52 signatures to the Lakeland, TN Board of Mayor and Aldermen asking Lakeland to annex this Rural Reserve Area. The northeast Shelby County Rural Reserve area is approximately 35 square miles with a population of 3,099+ (2010 Census).

According to the Commercial Appeal, “Price said the primary reason for the annexation request is a lack of representation, but schools also are an issue as the six suburbs prepare to open municipal school districts this summer.” Petitioners, and Lakeland Mayor Wyatt Bunker, want Bolton High School and Barret’s Chapel Elementary School to be in the Lakeland system, rather than in the Shelby County Schools (SCS) system. Lakeland currently only has an elementary school in its system. “Twenty years down the road, I see them being a key part of our city,” Bunker was quoted in the Commercial Appeal.

However, the matter is much more complicated. Shelby County Schools have a long-term lease agreement with the Bolton College Trust, which owns the land on which Bolton High School is located, as well as the Bolton Fire Station and farm land west of the high school. Bolton College Trust also provides financial support to Bolton High School. The City of Bartlett owns and maintains the sewer connections to Bolton High School and Barret’s Elementary School. And Shelby County Schools has set a precedent for not giving up schools that have a large number of SCS students attending them. In addition, Lakeland has a 7-year cooperative agreement with Arlington, TN to share their middle and high schools.

There’s more: Shelby County and TN state law require that municipalities file a Plan of Services prior to annexation of areas. Surprisingly, no plans of services can be found for the areas in its annexation reserve that Lakeland has already annexed. One of the long-term problems that sprawl creates for municipalities that “bite off more than they can chew” is that they become unable to financially maintain infrastructure and provide all the required services in their annexed areas.

Opponents to annexation say that the negatives outweigh the positives of Lakeland annexation. Residents will have to pay additional property taxes; Lakeland’s rate is currently $0.85 per $100 assessed value (for a $200,000 home = extra $425/year). Residents will pay higher sales tax: $0.975 in Lakeland ($0.925 is rate in most of TN). Residents will pay additional fees for storm water, waste pick up, and other “potential” services. Residents would share liability for Lakeland’s current debt of $11,705,910. Lakeland suburban land use restrictions will apply, with 427 pages of land use restrictions in the Lakeland Code.

The Tennessee Legislature recently passed bills on annexation, according to news from Sen. Mark Norris. “The full Senate voted 27 to 1 on March 27, 2014 in favor of major legislation which repeals annexation in Tennessee by municipal ordinance. Tennessee is one of only three states which allow annexation by ordinance. Senate Bill 2464, sponsored by Senators Bo Watson (R-Hixson), Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Mark Norris (R-Collierville), eliminates a city’s right to annex by ordinance and leaves the only method of annexation to be consent by the land owner or referendum. The bill also prohibits annexations of land used primarily for agricultural purposes without the consent of the owner.  In addition, the bill continues the current annexation moratorium until May 15, 2015 and specifically directs the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to study the collateral effects of the repeal.  This includes the rights of businesses and property owners not residing in the area who would not be qualified to vote in a referendum and how to deal with situations where utilities have already been extended in anticipation of annexation.” 

Find out more about Tennessee’s current annexation and moratorium bills, and how to contact senators and representatives, at: http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Under “find legislation,” type in the bill number, e.g., SB 2472, to read more about them.

The Equestrian Land Conservation Resource (ELCR) has two sets of documents on its website to inform landowners and residents about how to protect open lands, such as horse farms and ranches, trails, hay fields, etc. There are a range of conservation tools to help rural residents protect their rural land for horses, livestock, agriculture, forestry, etc. One is devoted to “Rural Sprawl,” sprawl in the rural landscape. According to the document: “The residents of rural sprawl do not necessarily have to be within a daily commute to urban or suburban centers. Unlike the ‘old timers’ in the countryside, they do not depend on farming for a living or even have a stake in farming.” Access the ELCR conservation documents at: https://elcr.org/conservation-resources/helpful-publications-and-links/

The other set assists in Planning for Horses in Your Community. “Planning and zoning decisions can affect how land is taxed, what it may be used for, and which standards and regulations are applied to it. These regulations determine not only whether individuals may keep horses on their own property, but also whether horses have access to community parks and trails. ELCR offers the tools to understand land use planning, zoning ordinances, and their implications for horses and horse-related activities.” Access to these documents is: https://elcr.org/conservation-resources/community-land-use-planning/

What is your “land ethic?” Central to Aldo Leopold’s philosophy is the assertion to quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. While recognizing the influence economics have on land decisions, Leopold understood that ultimately, our economic and overall well being cannot be separated from the well being of our environment. He believed it was critical that people have a close personal connection to the land – a “Land Ethic.”
April 22 is Earth Day, the heart of environmental and ecological awareness since 1970.  April is a good time to develop an understanding of the way that humans, individual and collective, are inextricably linked to the land and the environment. How we abuse it, or sustain it, will determine our health and well-being, and those of future generations.

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