The City of Conroe has one of the fastest growing populations in the nation; however, the city’s population is not the only thing expanding. Conroe is mired in an ongoing controversy over their ambitious annexation policy, even prompting a group of citizens to file a lawsuit for what they believe was an illegal acquisition of their community.
Since 2007, the city has been aggressively annexing nearby developments, jumping from 52.7 square miles in 2010 to 71.3 square miles in 2015. Many of these additions have drawn considerable opposition for how they were conducted and the lack of representation given to those annexed. Opposition has been particularly strong in the recently annexed community of April Sound, an affluent development on the opposite side of Lake Conroe from the city. In order to bring in more tax revenue, Conroe annexed strips of land across the lake and took in parts of April Sound and other communities.
Now, over 90 people have joined together to sue the city over the annexations, alleging 16 violations of state law. Among the many allegations, the plaintiffs contend that Conroe’s annexation of several parcels less than 1000 feet in width are against state law forbidding strip annexation (Local Government Code Sec. 43.122), where cities annex outlying developments, usually to “grow the tax base”, and connect them to the city by a thin strip of land. They also argue that certain parcels annexed that were not contiguous to the city broke the statute requiring annexations to be adjacent (Sec. 43.021). In response, city council hired a Houston based law firm, appropriating $50,000 of residents’ tax dollars to defending their actions.
A district judge dismissed some of the lawsuit in March, but as the rest continues to navigate through the court system, residents’ opposition to forced annexation remains strong. The issue of annexation took center stage in Conroe’s recent municipal elections, featured prominently in forums and candidates’ campaigns. Strong turnout from anti-annexation voters in April Sound had a large impact on Election Day, likely propelling to victory mayoral candidate Toby Powell, who ran on a platform promising to end forced annexations.
A big reason forced annexation remains controversial around the state is because citizens in unincorporated areas facing annexation have no representation in the process. Annexation often means stricter zoning, increased regulations, and higher tax rates. Citizens have no real say as to whether the benefits of being in a city, i.e. increased police and fire protection, outweigh the drawbacks in their particular situation. Armed with tax funded lawyers, powerful city councils seeking more revenue or attempting temporary fixes for their financial woes are able to run roughshod over residents with no vote, leaving the disenfranchised to seek help from the State Legislature.
During the 84th Legislative Session, State Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) filed bills attempting to reign in cities’ use of forced annexation (SB 616), allowing residents to file petitions and incorporate rather than face annexation (SB 615), and limiting a city’s extra territorial jurisdiction subject to annexation (SB 456).
Conroe’s annexation controversy highlights a major issue that growing cities are facing around the state. Proponents of forced annexation maintain that it is necessary to grow the tax base and provide more revenue for a growing city. However, many conservatives argue that there are better ways to maintain a city’s economic vitality, such as attracting businesses by low tax rates and fewer regulations, as well as handling spending and debt in a responsible manner.