Due to public backlash, a city in Parker County has dropped plans to forcibly annex 1,300 acres of unincorporated private property – for now.

The City of Weatherford was prepared to rush through involuntary annexations of over 50 properties in the Zion Hill area. City council members had hoped to conclude the process quickly, before a new state law takes effect December 1 that will require certain cities to get owners’ approval before annexing their property.

Weatherford’s haste to lay claim to the Zion Hill land – with or without the owners’ consent – also coincided with a vote in November by the nearby community of Peaster to incorporate, a move that could limit Weatherford’s future expansion.

Pushback from concerned property owners across the county put a temporary stop to Weatherford’s annexation plans.

Citizens like Laura Hester were instrumental in halting what they saw as a “land grab” by the city. Hester said residents had very little advance notice of the city’s intentions.

“We all feel like we’re being railroaded into this deal that’s not fair,” Randal Peck told city council members at a meeting on August 8, just a couple of weeks after residents received annexation notices.

“We deserve a vote if this council proceeds further with this unwanted annexation,” said Courtney Butler, echoing the sentiments of many others who showed up to tell the council they didn’t want to be forced into the city.

Despite hearing overwhelming public opposition, council members voted to go ahead with the land grab, setting public hearings for September and a final vote on the annexations in October.

That’s when Hester and others sprang into action – organizing local residents via Facebook, holding community meetings and protests to inform and engage their neighbors, keeping pressure on city council through continued communication and media coverage, and enlisting the support of local and state officials.

“We all worked together to get a lot done in a short time,” Hester told Texas Scorecard.

By the September 12 hearing date, the city had reversed course and agreed to halt plans for annexing Zion Hill – at least until after the new municipal annexation reforms take effect and residents can have a say in the process.

Current law allows cities to annex property in their extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) – unincorporated land adjacent to city boundaries – without owners’ consent. Senate Bill 6, passed during this year’s special legislative session, will require cities in larger counties to get owners’ approval before annexing them, giving some protection to landowners who’ve chosen to be outside of city boundaries – and free from city regulations and taxes.

A provision added to SB 6 by the area’s State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) will also let counties like Parker, with fewer than 500,000 residents, vote to opt in to the new restrictions on forced annexations. If ten percent of the county’s registered voters sign a petition, the opt-in question will be added to the ballot in November 2018.

Getting those petition signatures is Hester’s next goal. Though her community stopped Weatherford’s land grab plans for now, the city government will still be able to annex without landowners’ consent after SB 6 goes into effect unless the county’s residents vote to take back that authority.

Hester says her group has always had a three-step plan: stop the forced annexation of Zion Hill, gather enough petition signatures to add annexation reform to the ballot in Parker County, and get out the vote in favor of adopting the reform to end forced annexations. Stop Involuntary Annexation in Parker County is already circulating petitions all across the county and aims to collect 10,000 signatures – well above ten percent of the county’s 85,000 registered voters.

Weatherford Mayor Craig Swancy believes allowing impacted residents to have a say in whether they’re annexed unduly burdens the city’s ability to plan for its growth. “You want to grow up? Well,” Swancy said, “Senate Bill 6 says you can’t.”

What SB 6 actually says is that cities can’t grow to incorporate land beyond their boundaries without getting approval from the people who own that land – putting the burden on cities to make joining them more attractive, or to scale back their growth ambitions.

Weatherford isn’t the only Texas city looking to grab land while it can. The cities of McKinney in Collin County and Mesquite in Kaufman County are both pushing to complete forced annexations before SB 6 takes effect.

As in Parker, property owners in Collin and Kaufman counties say they plan to push back.

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.