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Annexation and S.B. 6: Balancing Property Rights and City Planning in Leon Springs

In case you haven't figured it out by now, private property rights are kind of a big deal in the State of Texas. It probably also comes as no shock that the state is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of population growth and urban expansion. For Texas's old timers and new comers alike, these seemingly adverse forces are constantly being pitted against one another on a daily basis. As a result, local and state governments constantly try to craft policies that reflect a balance between private property rights against the need for urban planning for the future. Needless to say, the search for balance often results in severe disagreement, controversy, and anger amongst the people affected.

At the frontline of these political skirmishes is the timeless issue of city annexation. This single issue is perhaps the best direct example of individual landowners‘s rights fighting against the government’s goal of planning for a better future. In short, annexation is the process by which a city increases its boundaries to include new land. From the City's perspective, the annexation process allows it to implement tools like zoning and a Unified Development Codes to ensure smart growth. Often, however, this land is already home to thriving communities that view annexation as nothing more than a greedy city's attempt to increase its tax base. What makes this issue more difficult than others is the simple fact that both sides have excellent points. Far be it from me to decide which argument is superior, but hopefully this blog will at least help identify and understand the current laws regarding annexation.

Traditionally, Texas cities were given broad authority to annex surrounding communities. As long as the land was located within a City's Extra Territorial Jurisdiction (ETJ), the city cpull annex it unilaterally by giving notice to, but not necessarily receiving consent from, the new area's residents. This power was capped only by the 10 percent rule, which dictated that a city could only annex new land in an amount equal to or less than 10% of its current size in a given year. ETJ is generally described as land within 5 miles of current city boundaries not already located within the boundaries of another incorporated  municipality.

In December of 2017, new legislation took affect that drastically altered a city's unilateral ability to annex new land. S.B. 6, introduced and driven by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, decrees that cities located in counties containing more than 500,000 people must receive express voter approval from the residents of proposed annexation zones before such annexation can occur. Counties with less than 500,000 residents can still subject themselves to the new bill by expressing that wish in special elections. State politicians like Senator Campbell and Governor Greg Abbot have lauded the change as a great success for Texas property rights. Local city and county governments, on the other hand, deride the new law as a huge detriment to good city planning.

Of particular importance for Leon Springs residents is an express exception for S.B. 6 in areas near military bases. While residents near these bases still get to vote on new annexation, the law provides a 5 mile "buffer zone", in which cities can still implement certain land use regulations. This buffer exists even if residents reject full annexation. While the exception appears to undermine the spirit of the bill, state officials saw the merits in protecting a military presence that adds billions to local economies. In San Antonio, for example, the State Comptroller estimates that military presence adds an average of almost $50 billion to the state's annual economy.

In 2014, the City of San Antonio launched a series of initiatives aimed at annexing several new areas, including much of Leon Springs near the U.S. Army's Camp Bullis. The past few years have seen bitter arguments against such annexation, as many Leon Springs residents came here specifically because it is out of the city. The Army has largely sided with the City, citing its need for less lighting, lower population densities, and the need for more land use control to benefit the military training it conducts on Camp Bullis. Also at stake are the City's services like trash and police, which could benefit a region already strained by population influxes.

The San Antonio City Council recently voted to continue pursuing its Leon Springs annexation plan, thus triggering S.B. 6's requirement for voter approval. At stake is the future of 22.39 square miles of land (14,332.46 acres), and approximately 18,780 people residing in 7,223 housing units. If you live in this area, you may have already received notices in the mail detailing the proposed annexation and election process. According to the new law, these individuals must choose between full San Antonio annexation, or being subject to the more limited city buffer zone. Choose carefully, as this decision dictated nothing less than the future of Leon Springs. Much like our governing politicians, it is up to you to decide between your individual property rights and planning for the area's future.


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