Residents of a central Texas county aren’t sitting still while a city targets them for forced annexation. They’re organizing and protesting the municipal land grab.

The group of rural Bell County landowners have quickly banded together to work against the City of Belton’s plans to annex over 1,300 acres of unincorporated land with just a few weeks’ notice and without the owners’ consent.

Over the past few weeks, they’ve spent hours reading up on annexation laws; making calls and knocking on doors; talking with neighbors, city officials, and other landowners affected by annexation – and trying to understand how this could be happening.

“It’s un-American and un-Texan,” says Amy Cook, one of the residents targeted for annexation who’s helping organize her neighbors to protest the city’s land grab. “What happened to consent of the governed?”

Cook and other residents also worked together to successfully petition the city to hold a third public hearing within the area targeted for annexation. Cook took the added step of securing a location for the hearing, which will be held November 16 at 5:30 p.m. at the Church of God of The Firstborn. City council members are expected to attend – though Cook made clear the event would take place “with or without” city council’s participation.

“We believe we will have enough for a quorum to have the meeting… as an official meeting of the city on Nov. 16,” City Clerk Amy Casey said Wednesday.

Residents showed up in force at the two legally-required public hearings held by Belton City Council on October 24 and 31, and spoke against the city’s plans for their land. They’re worried about having to pay new city taxes that many simply can’t afford. They’re not happy with being pushed to sign development agreements by November 9 – just two weeks from when they were sent out and before the final vote on annexation. They don’t want to lose their country lifestyle. And they believe landowners should have a say in whether they join the city.

They aren’t alone.

All across the state, Texans are protesting similar land grabs by cities working to beat a December 1 deadline. That’s when the state’s new municipal annexation reforms go into effect, requiring cities in counties with 500,000 or more residents to get owners’ approval before taking property into the city. Until then, cities can annex without landowners’ consent.

Belton won’t be immediately restricted by the new property rights protections. But voters in smaller counties like Bell can elect to opt in to the new protections – and if Cook and her neighbors have anything to say about it, they will, regardless of how the city council votes on its current annexation plan.

Cook told council members at the October 31 hearing that City Manager Sam Listi admitted to her the city is “pursuing this forced annexation in a short timeline to cut off our ability to invoke protections under the new law.”

“Even If you ignore us, we will continue to press forward to our ultimate goal of a county-wide vote to end forced annexation in this county,” she added.

Cook and her neighbors are already prepared to start the opt-in process by collecting signatures on a petition to put the issue to a vote. They’ll need at least 10 percent of Bell County’s registered voters to sign – that’s over 18,000 signatures.

The support group they’ve formed to share information and organize their efforts is hosting a community meeting on Tuesday, November 14, at 5:30 p.m. at the Church of God of The Firstborn.

Cook believes there can still be a positive outcome, and says the silver lining to the situation is, “I have found out how determined the citizens of Bell County are to work together on a cause.”

They have a lot more work to do in very little time.

The city has scheduled a first reading of the annexation ordinance for November 21, and the final reading and vote for November 28.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.