Texans know it’s wrong to take someone’s property. That includes cities taking control of people’s property by annexing it – subjecting it to city taxes and regulations – without the property owners’ consent.

So why can’t the Texas Legislature stop forced annexation once and for all?

Despite municipal annexation reform passed this year that took effect December 1, property owners in most Texas counties still aren’t protected from city land grabs. For many Texans, the fight against forced annexation has just begun.

Texas is one of just a handful of states that allows “involuntary” or forced annexation of unincorporated land by city governments. Republican state senators tried to end the practice during this year’s regular legislative session, passing an annexation reform bill, Senate Bill 715, on a straight party-line vote.

SB 715 also passed the House by a wide margin – but only after it was watered down to protect only some Texas property owners from forced annexation. Under the House version of the bill, only cities in the state’s largest counties were required to get property owners’ approval before annexing them.

City governments and their taxpayer-funded lobbyists in the Texas Municipal League fought annexation reform legislation in both the regular and special sessions, but ultimately achieved only a partial victory.

SB 715 died when the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a compromise before time ran out. But another limited annexation reform bill, Senate Bill 6, passed in the special session and went into effect 90 days after the end of that session – standard procedure for Texas bills that pass with less than a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

Passage of SB 6 set off a flurry of land grabs statewide, as cities sought to beat the clock and forcibly annex as much property as possible before the new law required them to get landowners’ consent – which city officials acknowledged wasn’t likely.

Cities in the state’s largest counties initiated much of the forced annexation activity, as SB 6’s immediate ban applied only to cities in counties with 500,000 or more residents: Bexar, Collin, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend, Harris, Hidalgo, Montgomery, Tarrant, Travis, and Williamson.

In Collin County, land grabs by the cities of McKinney and Celina sparked strong public backlash. McKinney eventually gave up its fight in the face of fierce public opposition and allegations the city may have violated state laws in its haste to finish a final round of forced annexations before SB 6 took effect. Celina officials ignored residents’ concerns and instead chose to push through one last land grab, leaving many in the community feeling angry and frustrated.

The city of Mesquite in Dallas County also faced strong opposition to its plans to forcibly annex property in Dallas and Kaufman counties before the new restrictions kicked in. County residents there kept fighting until the end, eventually taking the city to court – and winning. Mesquite officially threw in the towel on December 5, signing off on an agreement to stop pursuing their land grab.

But residents of most Texas counties still aren’t protected by the new law. Texans in those counties now have two options.

One is to push lawmakers to pass additional reforms in the 2019 legislative session that apply the same annexation rules to all Texas counties.

The other option for residents of smaller counties is to “opt in” to the property rights protections that automatically applied to larger counties starting December 1.

A provision added to SB 6 by State Rep. Phil King (R–Weatherford) lets counties with fewer than 500,000 residents vote to opt in to the new ban on forced annexations. If ten percent of a county’s registered voters sign a petition, the opt-in question will be added to the ballot. If a majority of voters approve the opt-in measure, cities in the county will no longer be able to annex land without owners’ consent.

King, who represents Parker and Wise counties, recorded an audio explanation of the new annexation reform law and the opt-in process.

Opt-in petition drives are already underway in two counties where rural residents fought against city land grabs.

In Parker County, residents working together pushed the city of Weatherford to drop its land grab and give people a chance to vote on the issue. Now they’re working to make that vote happen.

Laura Hester, organizer of Stop Involuntary Annexation in Parker County, says her group has already gathered 9,000 signatures on a petition to put the opt-in question to a countywide vote on the November 2018 ballot. They’re aiming for 10,000 signers – well over ten percent of the county’s 87,000 registered voters.

In Bell County, rural residents fought for weeks against forced annexation by the city of Belton, with mixed results. Despite landowners’ protests, Belton City Council members voted to forcibly annex county property. But the city annexed only a fraction of the acreage originally targeted, and two of Belton’s seven city council members were persuaded to vote against the final forced annexation plan.

“Our campaign has just begun to end forced annexation in Bell County,” says Amy Cook, a county landowner who’s been a driving force in helping her neighbors understand and try to stop Belton’s land grab.

“Families were put in a position that no landowner should have to be in — to sign an agreement or be forcibly annexed,” Cook said. “Unfortunately, Belton will continue to have the power to unilaterally affect individual property rights until we end the practice in Bell County.”

Cook is now committed to making sure no Bell County families are forced to make that decision again. She and her neighbors started the opt-in process with a petition drive kickoff on December 7. Their goal is to collect 20,000 petition signatures from Bell County registered voters by the beginning of May, in time for the measure to be added to the November 2018 ballot.

Cook also organized a support group that will meet at locations across the county to explain the new annexation law and encourage voters to sign the petition.

Citizens in other counties will likely follow Cook’s and Hester’s examples, engaging locally in campaigns to protect private property rights from local government overreach.

Ultimately, the fight to end forced annexation in Texas is about giving people a voice and a vote in how and where they live, and allowing people to choose whether or not they want to be part of a city. As State Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Little Elm) has reminded land-grabbing city officials across North Texas, “Cities don’t have rights. People have rights.”

Property rights are among the most important that Texans have. Those rights won’t be fully protected until all Texas property owners are safe from municipal land grabs.

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.