Annexation in South Carolina: How Cities Grow

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Ever wondered how cities grow? In this episode, we explore annexation in South Carolina with Scott Slatton, an expert from the Municipal Association of South Carolina. Scott breaks down the process, benefits, and challenges of annexation, sharing insights about donut holes, land use, and the tug-of-war between rural and urban interests. Join us for an engaging look at the little-understood but crucial topic of how cities expand!

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Municipal Association of South Carolina

Transcript

Katy Smith:

Annexation has been in the news lately as the City of Greenville and Cherrydale Shopping Center are going through the process to annex that 126 acre area to fall within city limits. It’s something that most civically minded people are generally aware of but I suspect don’t really fully understand – how it works, when it happens, and what it means for both the property owner and the government that takes them in and the government that loses them.

I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and on this episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County, I talk with Scott Slatton – Director of Advocacy and Communications with the Municipal Association of South Carolina to better understand annexation. Scott covers all of that in this quick primer on annexation in South Carolina. 

Scott, thanks so much for being here today to talk about something that everybody, a word everyone hears about who’s interested in civics, but not a lot of people probably understand enough.

So maybe we could start with the basics. What is annexation?

Scott Slatton:

Yeah, thanks, Katy, for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about a subject that can be sore for some people, but connotes good things for others.

Annexation in South Carolina simply means the ability for cities and towns across the state to expand their borders.

And they do that under the auspices of several sections of state law that are found in Title V in the South Carolina Code of Laws, which, of course, is the title of municipal laws that govern most all of what we can and can’t do as cities and towns across the state.

So annexation simply means it’s an opportunity, it’s a process by which cities and towns add properties to their boundaries and expand their municipal limits.

So one thing that everyone needs to understand about annexation is that before a piece of property can be incorporated into the municipal limits, annexed into the city, it must first be contiguous to the existing city limits.

So if a property touches the city, the existing city limits at some point along a common boundary, then it is eligible to be annexed into the city.

But if there is something, some barrier between the existing city limits and that property, a piece of property like another property, and you can’t get the contiguous property to come in, then the one that wants to come in can’t because they don’t touch.

Now, contiguity is not, however, is not disrupted by a creek.

A body of water like a lake or a pond, a marsh in the low country, a road, a railroad, things like that.

Those are called intervening connectors.

And the concept there is if you remove that intervening connector, would those two properties touch?

And if that’s the case, then that property is considered contiguous for the purposes of annexation.

Katy Smith:

Well, that seems easy enough. What would drive a city or a town or the people that are right outside that city or town to desire annexation?

Scott Slatton:

Well, generally, annexation in South Carolina is entirely voluntary, Katy.

So there are a number of different reasons that people might want to annex into a city.

So, for instance, a developer may want to annex into a city or town so that they can get water and sewer services.

Cities and towns across the state are allowed to extend those utility services outside their boundaries.

But in doing so, they sometimes charge higher rates to people who get that service but don’t live in the city or town.

So a developer will say, hey, you know, I want to increase the value of my property and the lots that I’m going to develop on.

So I want to be in the city and get the lower water and sewer rates.

Perhaps the city’s zoning ordinance allows that developer to do something a little bit different in terms of the density, or maybe that developer would get green space credits so that they could develop more intensely on one part of the property in exchange for more green space on the other side of the property. That’s one example.

That’s probably one of the more common examples that we see is developers and commercial development who wants to get the benefit of city services for their future development and get lower rates, maybe some considerations on the densities, perhaps, or some other considerations.

And so they’ll petition to annex into the city.

Existing residents, you know, it just depends on what their motivations might be.

Maybe they want those lower water and sewer rates.

Maybe they want a voice in that municipal government.

As a county resident, you can’t vote for a city mayor or a city council member.

But if you’re a resident of that city, then you get that opportunity and have a voice in the local government that is influencing your life probably the most than any other on a day-to-day basis.

Katy Smith:

I can imagine with all the cities and towns across the state, how varied any resident who’s just outside that boundary would feel.

They might say, gosh, they do trash really great.

Trash pick up great in the city of Greenville. I want to attach myself there.

Or I’m leery of this particular town.

So I’m sure the opinions are as varied as the people and properties of South Carolina, as people consider.

Scott Slatton:

Indeed they are.

Katy Smith:

How does the annexation process work in South Carolina?

Scott Slatton:

Okay. So there are three ways, Katy, in South Carolina that you can be annexed into a city.

And I’ll talk about the two least used methods and then I’ll save the most used for last.

The least two that are used are called the 25% petition and election method.

And the other one is called the 75% petition method.

The 25% petition election method allows the residents of an area outside of a city or town to petition that town council to allow those residents to vote on whether or not a set of properties or, you know, the circle that’s been drawn around a set of properties to allow them to vote on whether or not to become a part of the city.

So think about an example would be residents in an apartment complex want to get the benefit of city services that they don’t have right now because they’re outside the city.

So they would get 25 percent of the residents who live in that apartment complex to sign a petition.

That petition is presented to the city council. City council says, yes, we’re willing for y’all to have a vote to decide if you want to come in or not.

There’s a number of procedural and election procedures that you have to go through.

But ultimately, the residents in that apartment complex would then get to vote whether or not that apartment complex goes into the city or not.

So, I mean, in that case, the property owner, the apartment complex owner would have no say in that unless he or she were a resident of the apartment complex.

And, of course, they would have a say by way of their vote.

But in that case, it is up to the residents to make that decision, you know, irrespective of the wishes of the property owner in that case.

That’s one of the reasons why it is so rarely used across the state because of that property rights concern.

The other more obscure method is called the 75% petition method.

And what that means is that 75% of the property owners who own 75% of the assessed value of the properties that are being considered for annexation, they would have to sign a petition and present that to the city council.

So let’s think about it this way. You’ve got four properties that are being proposed to be annexed. Three of those property owners together own 75% of the assessed value of all four of those properties together.

If three of those property owners who own that 75% of the assessed value petition the city council, then the city council can pass an ordinance and force that fourth property owner in along with those other three who want to come into the city.

Again, I can only think of one instance where that method has been used, and that was in the mid-2000s.

Katy Smith:

Well, the math that you just used was very clean, but I can imagine if you have a neighborhood with With 225 houses, you’ve got to figure out both the value of those particular pieces of property and who is interested in the yes versus the no. It seems very tricky.

Scott Slatton:

Yes, the yeses would have to sign a petition and the yeses cumulatively would have to own at least 75% of the total value, assessed value in the area being proposed to be annexed.

So, yes, you’d have to do some math outside of my very simple example.

Katy Smith:

There’s an Excel spreadsheet involved in that.

Scott Slatton:

So those are the two more what I’ll call obscure annexation methods.

The most commonly used 99 times out of 100 is what’s called the 100% petition method of annexation.

And what that simply means is that all of the owners of all of the properties being proposed to be annexed sign a petition asking the city council to annex it into the city.

Whether that be one single owner who owns 100 acres or 10 owners who own 10 acres apiece of the 100 acres, all of them, be it the one who owns all of it or the 10 who own the 100 acres together, would all have to sign the petition and say, hey, we want to be in the city.

The city council simply accepts that petition and decides whether or not it wants to annex those properties, passes an ordinance with two readings, and that those properties are incorporated into the municipal boundaries.

Katy Smith:

Got it. That’s very helpful. Okay. Now, let me, let me, I’m thinking here kind of about some geometry then, Scott, if I can imagine if my property is just a nice straight line between me and a city that I want to to be annexed into…

What if it’s kind of corner to corner? Or what if me and some of my neighbors all want to join in, but there’s a guy in the middle of us that doesn’t?

How do those things work?

Scott Slatton:

So if your property is touching point to point, the courts have ruled in South Carolina that that is touching and therefore is contiguous.

So you would be eligible to be annexed.

If there there is a property owner in the middle of you and your neighbors who doesn’t want to come in, then that’s where you would use either that 75% petition method or the 25% petition election method.

But most of the time though, those neighbors who want to come in will just essentially annex around him, if you will, or surround that property and then create what’s called an enclave or a donut hole.

And if you’re familiar at all with municipal donut holes, that is a piece of property that is located in the county, but it’s entirely surrounded by the city.

There are lots of enclaves, donut holes throughout the state in cities and towns.

If you take a look at the map of Greer, you’ll see lots of donut holes.

If you look at the city map of Greenville, you’ll see donut holes.

There aren’t very many cities or towns in South Carolina where there isn’t a donut hole.

And that creates, those donut holes create problems in terms of service delivery.

Take, for example, because that donut hole is actually under the jurisdiction of a county, when that resident dials 911, he or she is going to get a county sheriff, typically will be dispatched, despite the fact that a city police officer might be right next door.

Now, that county sheriff will be dispatched first, then he or she gets into that donut hole, and they’re the only ones that have any jurisdiction there.

Even if the city officer responds to that property, he or she can’t do anything.

They can’t arrest anyone.

They can detain someone, but they can’t arrest anyone because they don’t have jurisdiction in that that property because it’s in the county.

It’s technically in the county, not in the city limits.

The other service delivery problems are, you know, who picks up the garbage?

If the city picks up trash, then that person who lives in the county technically isn’t going to get that service.

Although sometimes people sneak in their own garbage, even though they’re not paying for it.

Those are just a couple of examples where enclaves create service delivery and coordination problems between counties and cities and special purpose districts for that.

Katy Smith:

Sure, sure. That’s helpful. Thank you. Well, Scott, this has been a helpful outline of what annexation is, how it works.

What are some of the pros and cons that folks think about annexation, whether they are in the city or in the county or they are the property owners themselves?

Scott Slatton:

Two things that I always list as the pros of living in a city.

First is you get to participate in a much more direct way in your local government.

You know, I may or may not know my county council member, but if I live in a city or town, I could… I’d have a pretty good chance and know that I’ll know at least one of my city council members or the mayor.

And I know how to get a hold of that person. And I know where City Hall is and I can go down there and I get to vote on who my representation is in this on city council and for mayor.

Everybody in a city gets to vote for a mayor, and depending on their representation, they may get to vote on all their city council members or just one in their district.

So that’s first, more direct involvement in your local government.

The other big pro, in my view, is the land use protection that you get in a city by way of zoning ordinances.

When you live out in some counties in South Carolina that don’t have much of any land use regulations, you’re not really protected from bad things moving in next door to you.

So, you know, theoretically, a chemical plant or a chicken farm or, you know, some use that’s not compatible with residential areas could locate next door to you.

A junkyard could locate next door to you. That’s not going to happen in a city or town because of their zoning ordinances and the land regulations that they have in place.

And so I think those are probably two of the biggest pros. Certainly the provision of services at a lower rate.

Your homeowner’s insurance is usually lower because of the fire coverage, the enhanced fire coverage that you get from being in the city.

You’re going to get garbage pickup. Your water and sewer rates are going to be lower than if you had city water and sewer outside the municipality.

So there are lots of pros to being inside a city in South Carolina. I’m a big city fan.

I’m a fan of cities and towns. I would be hard pressed to come up with any cons.

But, you know, some of the things that we hear about why people don’t want to come in, particularly rural residents, they want to maintain their rural character, the quiet that they have out in the country. Nothing wrong with that.

I grew up in the country, so I know I can empathize and understand exactly what they’re talking about, and depending on where you are in South Carolina, that quality of life, that rural life is going to be maintained, but I’ll tell you, Katy…

And you know this as well as I do. South Carolina is an extremely desirable place to live and work.

And we are seeing a gold rush of people coming here to our state.

And they’ve got to live somewhere.

And so residential development is following those people who are coming into our state.

And that’s causing friction amongst the people who want to maintain that rural quality of life, that rural character versus the developers who want the municipal services that they’re getting when they annex into cities and towns.

That tension is growing in a good number of parts of the state, obviously Greenville, Spartanburg, Charleston, Columbia, Rock Hill, the urban areas of our state.

So we all need to understand what annexation means, what the development pressure means to all of us who live in cities and counties.

And we need to be prepared to together address some of the challenges that this unprecedented growth is presenting to all of us.

Katy Smith:

Wow. Well, in thinking about that growth and thinking about South Carolina being unique in so many ways, is there anything particularly unique about our annexation process in our state?

And are there any discussions about changing that process at the state level?

Scott Slatton:

Certainly one of the things that cities and towns would like to do is try and eliminate some of those enclaves, those donut holes that we talked about because of those service delivery problems.

But right now, there’s really no large push anywhere across the state, certainly not from our members, to make changes to the annexation laws.

As I said, you know, 99 percent of annexations that take place across the state are entirely voluntary and it seems to be working quite well.

It certainly hasn’t deterred any of the development that’s taking place in the state.

And as I think I said earlier, annexation is one of the very few tools that cities and towns have to manage the growth that we’re all facing.

And so at this point, I don’t foresee any major changes being requested, but certainly enclaves and the elimination of those would be helpful to cities and counties for that matter.

Katy Smith:

If someone is listening and they think, gosh, I’m contiguous to a city or a town, I’d like to find out more. What would you say they should do?

Scott Slatton:

Yeah, they would reach out to their city planning department.

If it’s a smaller town, then reach out to the mayor.

If they have a town manager or administrator, reach out to those officials.

But yeah, just call City Hall, say, I’m interested in annexing into the city, and they’ll get you going in the right direction. One other resource that people can use if they want to learn more about annexation is by going to our website, masc.sc.

And if they just type in the search box “annexation,” it will take them to our annexation handbook, which gives all of the detail that somebody might need about how annexation in South Carolina works for their city and town.

Katy Smith:

Fabulous. Well, Scott, thanks so much for joining us and for the guidance that you give to cities and towns across our state, including the six that are located right here in Greenville County.

Scott Slatton:

Thank you.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

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