Annexation ruling vexes city

Before a state Supreme Court decision made the petition method of annexation unlawful three months ago, a common complaint was that commercial interests had far more power in annexation than homeowners.

Now that annexation can only be approved via election, Port Orchard officials are afraid the will of tenants could now trump the will of those whose land is being annexed.

“They’ve taken the property owners’ rights, in some cases, totally away,” said City Clerk Pat Parks. Parks is responsible for handling potential and pending annexations.

“If the property owner doesn’t live on his property, he has no say,” she added.

“The tenants who are registered voters will be deciding.”

The Supreme Court decision came after the Grant County Fire Department sued the City of Moses Lake over an annexation dispute. The state Supreme Court decided the petition method of annexation gave large commercial interests too much power because clout was legally measured by assessed valuation. Under the old rules, the owner of an annexable property worth $10,000 would have 10 times as much influence over the annexation as the owner of a property worth $1,000.

The only other method of annexation relies on a public vote involving all registered voters living on the annexable properties. As Parks pointed out, this means commercial properties, unimproved properties and the absentee owners of rental properties have no say in the annexation.

“If it was all commercial property, it would be impossible to annex,” Parks said.

In addition, in an ironic twist on the petition method, a single resident using the election method could successfully annex his or her own property plus all adjacent commercial property without the possibility of opposition. It would, in essence, be a one-vote election.

In all non-unanimous annexations, a simple majority would be required for the annexation to go through.

Parks said this could potentially anger business owners who suddenly find themselves without a say on the fate of their property. Already, she has had to turn away businesses looking to annex into the city. When they do call, Parks said she tells them to canvass nearby houses and try to entice residents to move forward on the annexation on the business owner’s behalf.

This quandary, Parks said, is largely due to the narrow focus of the original lawsuit and the resulting broad-based finding.

“(The court) just looked at the narrow path the lawsuit is premised on,” she said. “They didn’t look at what else could be out there.”

On the bright side, Parks said this decision makes for a lot less paperwork. Previously, city staff had to verify every name on an annexation petition, often in person. Now, Parks said, the only drain will be on the city finances; the city must pay to put measures on the ballot, including annexation measures.

This, she said, will probably limit the number of annexation which go through. Because special elections are extremely expensive, Parks said annexations will probably eventually appear on the regular November ballots.

However, there isn’t exactly a line of voters waiting to join the city.

Parks said, before the court ruling, she was only talking to three parties interested in annexation. Two of those, she said, owned businesses and therefore lost their chance at annexation when the ruling was handed down. The other, a group from Sinclair Heights, was nearly at the point of announcing their attention to circulate an annexation petition. However, Parks said she has not seen or heard from any Sinclair Heights residents since the ruling, either, even though the area is entirely residential and was therefore not greatly affected by the court decision.

“They may not want to go into the election method,” Parks said.

Calls to the residents formerly spearheading the annexation effort were not returned.

Right now, the city is sitting tight, waiting to see if anyone challenges the ruling. In addition, there is the possibility the courts will modify the decision to go with a strictly election-based system of annexation. The city also has little to no experience with election-based annexations and would have to draft up its own set of rules before plunging forward.

City Engineer Larry Curles said the city staff was unwilling to spend time trying to pick their way through the new process only to have the rules changed yet again.

“It has pretty much shut down annexation for three to five years,” Curles said.

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