Feature: Wednesday, July 11, 2002
Annexation Vexation!

A land grab gets mud on all parties.

By Jeff Prince

The ongoing confrontation between mighty Fort Worth and thousands of residents living outside its city limits resembles a David and Goliath story, but without a well-defined hero or villain. Real life doesn’t always play out as neatly as a biblical tale. Nothing muddies a parable quite like involuntary annexation.

Is Goliath bullying David, or is David sponging off Goliath and whining about paying a fair share? Is Goliath crafting a sinister plan to trample David and curry favor with co-Goliaths named Bass, Edwards, Hyder, Walsh, and Bonds? Or is David suffering from a persecution complex fraught with conspiracy theories and unfounded suspicions? The perplexity would give Solomon a headache.

People who move to the country to avoid city hubbub, rules, and taxes usually make the mistake of moving just beyond current borders. They want to live on the fringe — close to the city’s business opportunities, museums, and restaurants, but beyond the reach of its bureaucracy. Problem is, that’s like standing next to an elephant for shade. The spot is cool, but you might get stepped on. “If you want to live in the country, you better be prepared to move every 10 years,” a city official suggested recently.

City financiers accept as mantra the idea that cities must continue to grow or find themselves squeezed off from future tax dollars by the incorporation of smaller towns around their edges. City planners look at land outside their borders — where the county by law cannot exercise control over development — and see septic tanks waiting to overflow. They worry about rendering plants illegally dumping carcasses, or trucking companies and mini-warehouses springing up in residential neighborhoods, or streets being paved without curbs and gutters.

Stephanie Pivec understands all that. But when she started researching Fort Worth’s proposal, the formerly nonpolitical housewife thought she had found something smelly, though not illegal. It seemed to her that Fort Worth was systematically trampling on the little folks, in neighborhoods like hers, who didn’t want to get annexed, in order to reach the big swaths of land owned by wealthy power brokers who did want it.

Turns out, she’s right, in a way. What’s more, city officials admit it.

But the two sides still disagree about the why’s — and about what annexation will do to both new and old citizens.

As it turns out, city officials and the don’t-wanna-be citizens actually agree on more than they might have suspected. Both sides agree the city waited longer than it should have to start the wheels turning on what would be the largest annexation proposal in Fort Worth history. Both agree that the city is moving now, in part, to avoid a new state law that, beginning in January, will slow those wheels to a crawl.

The 1990s instilled a sense of urgency at City Hall. Growth had boomed throughout the decade, and city officials felt as if they had fallen behind in annexing land to control development. In 1999, city council members developed 10-point criteria to designate land for annexation. The criteria included land that was experiencing development activity, was situated near current city limits, or was needed to provide continuity of city services to other areas.

The latest annex plan is merely catch-up, according to development director Bob Riley. “We should have done this two or three years ago,” he said. “But, whenever we do it, it’s not going to be popular.”

Further motivation came from a revised state law that, beginning Jan. 1, 2003, will mandate a three-year waiting period from the time a city announces a proposed annexation until it can be carried out. Fort Worth didn’t want to wait that long. “There is a concern that after Jan. 1 we’re not so sure we know all the rules,” Riley said.

Those pressures, plus the fact of booming growth in several key areas, produced an annexation proposal rather breathtaking in sweep. Fort Worth announced in February that it was considering annexing 55 square miles, home to 10,000 people along its south, west, northwest, and north edges, stretching from Johnson County on the south to Denton County on the north. In one swoop, the city could have grown by almost 18 percent.

The plan included a dozen square miles around Eagle Mountain Lake, from which the city draws much of its water. “It’s a crucial part of our water system,” said city public information officer Pat Svacina. “There are so many septic tanks being built around Eagle Mountain we’re getting to the point where the discharge is going to seep into the lake and affect the water quality. As a drinking-water lake, that’s a major problem.”

Reaction was immediate, strong, and long-lasting. “I’m really getting disgusted with this,” Tarrant County Commissioner J.D. Johnson told a crowd of several hundred cheering people who met at Trinity Park on June 29 to protest the annexations. “I feel like we’re about to grow into something like Dallas, and I don’t want any part of that.”

Annexation opponents organized quickly. They did their homework and turned out in force, for meeting after meeting — despite, Pivec said, city-provided meeting dates that sometimes turned out to be wrong and other needed information that sometimes disappeared from the city’s web site. The city suffered a public-relations thrashing after admitting that the annexation, indeed, was timed to beat the Jan. 1 deadline.

The upshot: Fort Worth has ended up on the defensive, shrinking its gargantuan grab to a mere what-a-size that may get whittled even further. First the south zone was deleted, and then the west zone was delayed. In the process, city officials realized that the three-year-wait doesn’t apply to all the proposed areas — meaning they can come back to annex those parcels at their leisure.

Now the city says it is concentrating on populated areas around Eagle Mountain Lake and the U.S. 287 corridor near Alliance Airport — still a sizable chunk of ground. City officials justify the annexations by citing everything from environmental concerns to building standards to uniformity in city boundaries, but downplay the boost to the tax base and the catering to large developers, which critics view as primary reasons for the city’s aggressive annexation.

Stephanie Pivec still isn’t convinced that the annexation serves any public purpose. And she still is convinced that it’s not the little folks in those areas that the city is setting out to help. “What the city is doing is wrong,” she said.

The Westridge Terrace subdivision in Johnson County where Pivek and her husband, Jim, have lived for four years is an older community with brick houses on large lots — one to three acres — with a smattering of cows, horses, and goats. The open spaces allow cool breezes that make sitting on a front porch in late afternoon a pleasant experience. The countryside is also conducive to a nostalgic breed of critter that typically vanishes under the crush of development — fireflies. “Annexation will probably be the end of fireflies,” Pivec said. “We go out at night and chase fireflies. I know it’s silly, but that’s what my kids like to do. It’s tranquil. We have freedom to have animals. I can see the stars at night. I don’t hear traffic.”

News that her home was pegged for annexation literally nauseated her.

She was minding her own business, raising her two kids, when she found out the city taxman was about to knock on her door. She jumped into the fight and quickly learned some important lessons about bureaucracy, city officials, and power brokers. No one was more surprised than Pivec that she became a leader of the crusade.

Her passionate and vocal presence resulted in her appointment as president of the grassroots Citizens Against Forced Annexation, a group of mostly rural homeowners and business operators who organized to resist efforts to force them inside the city limits. “We’re not saying we don’t want to pay city taxes or that we’re anti-Fort Worth, because we’re not,” Pivec said recently at Fort Worth Weekly’s office. She had hauled 25 pounds of paperwork and maps to help prove her points.

“Our concern is that the whole area is going to take a nosedive because of Fort Worth taking on more than they can handle at this time,” she said, ticking off a litany of foreseeable problems: Police and emergency crews are already overburdened and will be stretched farther by having to cover more of the boonies; country dwellers often shoot varmints, such as skunks and coyotes, but city ordinances restrict homeowners from shooting guns; people who regularly burn trash could be prevented by city law, causing more waste to be sent to overburdened landfills; independent truck drivers who moved outside the city to park rigs in their yards could be hogtied by city ordinances; livestock animals banned in the city are common in the country; many residents have wells for water, septic tanks for sewage, and adequate emergency services provided through the county.

Digging in to fight City Hall, Pivec sought some legal advice in early March. A neighbor told her to call Fort Worth attorney Elton M. Hyder III because he owned a ranch nearby. Pivec called but received little encouragement. She asked Hyder about petitioning for a writ of mandamus to prove that services and infrastructure provided by the city could not be maintained at pre-annexation levels. “He was noncommittal, and he said, ‘Let’s wait,’ ” she recalled. Two conversations with Hyder led nowhere, and Pivec started researching on her own.

Pivec had heard that a developer who owned land south of her neighborhood had requested annexation to get city services, extend Hulen Street farther south, and develop a new community. An involuntary annexation of Pivec’s community would allow the city to more easily extend services to the developer’s land. She called Bob Riley and asked who had requested voluntary annexation. The Hyder Ranch, Riley said.

Pivec was dumbstruck. The attorney she had called to enlist help in fighting annexation was part of the family requesting voluntary annexation. “He didn’t disclose that his family requested the annexation,” she said. State disciplinary rules of professional conduct bar lawyers from representing a person in a substantially related matter when that person’s interests are adverse to the interests of the lawyer. Pivec said she doesn’t plan to complain, but she feels that Hyder was unethical in not revealing his involvement in the annexation. Hyder did not return Fort Worth Weekly’s calls for comment.

Hyder’s wasn’t the only well-connected name that Pivec found in the land records. The more she dug, the more suspicious she became. Gradually, the complex map of proposed annexations began to make a kind of sense to her: Fort Worth, in the center, was surrounded by a small-piece quilt of semi-rural, already-developed neighborhoods whose residents didn’t want to be part of the city. Outside of that were stitched the big patches — a series of large ranches with well-known owners, poised to benefit from annexation. The plan wasn’t any more palatable to her — but now she could see its cynical political logic. Ed Bass, Cass Edwards, J.D. Johnson’s ally Pete Bonds, the Hyders — all are names synonymous with wealth, business, ranching, development, and longtime Fort Worth roots, and all of them owned big parcels that the city could reach only by going through other people’s yards.

Annexation as political payoff is a simple concept to grasp. But the reality is more complicated.

Fort Worth billionaire Edward P. Bass owns more than 7,000 acres of farm and ranch land between the south and west proposed annexation zones and is poised to benefit from those developments, as well as the proposed Southwest Parkway extension. The Bass property, however, is not being annexed.

The Walsh Ranch in the west and Bonds Ranch in the north requested annexation and are pegged for development, and the city is seeking involuntary annexations of other land in those areas to clear corridors, create a more uniform city boundary, and up its tax base. Cass Edwards and his relatives, on the other hand, own a ranch with about 1,500 acres just south of Eagle Mountain Lake, and they have been left out of the city’s annexation plans, while fully developed areas farther north are pegged for involuntary annexation.

Pivec and others in her group said it appears as if influential people’s wishes — to be annexed or not — are being followed, whereas common folks are getting sucked into the city without a choice. “Nothing is illegal necessarily, but it all smells,” Pivec said. “They’re allowed to maintain their lifestyle choice while others with less influence are not. You get a little nervous when you realize these are the power brokers behind City Hall. That’s the way the world works in politics, I’m sure, but the fact is, Fort Worth can’t take care of what they have now, and they are willing to take on all this annexation. Who is going to benefit?”

City planners said that the city indeed gears much of its annexation strategy toward large ripe-for-development tracts, and there is nothing surreptitious or improper about it.

Cities try to control development around their borders. When large ranches are ready to develop, cities are ready to take them in and benefit from a tax-base boost and control over development and infrastructure. The involuntary annexations were needed to open lanes to the Hyder land in the south, the Walsh ranch in the west, and the Bonds ranch in the north. County residents complain that they are being penalized by higher city taxes. But ranch owners take their hits as well. Most of them enjoy agricultural tax exemptions that keep their taxes low as long as they keep livestock on the land. Once the ranchers change zoning to pave the way for development, they must pay five years’ worth of retroactive taxes.

Ranches such as those owned by Bass and the Edwards family are seldom included in involuntary annexations because it makes little sense to take a ranch unless the owner is ready to develop, Riley said. Agricultural exemptions usually mean that annexing such properties creates more liability than benefit for a city. Although the Edwards ranch land met the city’s criteria for annexation, it was excluded, but not because of the name or perceived influence of its owners, Riley said. “We haven’t seen platting activity or construction going on that makes it an immediate threat to Fort Worth,” he said. “Quite honestly, I think it will come in some day, maybe five years from now.”

The issue soon became moot in Pivec’s case. The city announced it was dropping the south zones from its plan. Despite the news, Pivec and others didn’t feel victorious, only temporarily spared. City officials feel less pressure to grab the south zones because a condition in the new law works in their favor. Senate Bill 89 exempts an annexation from stiffer rules imposed after Jan. 1 if the city is taking an area with fewer than 100 households. Sparsely developed areas are easier to take than dense areas. Development is spread out in the south zones, as homeowners typically live on large lots. The city can come back later and take these residents in without much interference from the new law.

City officials refocused on property in the west, northwest, and north — still a staggering amount of land compared to previous annexations. Pivec, realizing some annexation was inevitable, considered ending her involvement in Citizens Against Forced Annexation. But people from the west and northwest zones continued to request her leadership. “I didn’t ask for this position; I’m just a fighter,” she said.

If Fort Worth officials had actively tried to piss off as many people as possible with their annexation plans, they couldn’t have done much worse. When city department heads met with county residents, they couldn’t answer some of their questions, which fueled rumors and suspicions. Then, at an April 2 meeting, city council members voted to give speakers who flooded the council chambers a grand total of 10 minutes to decry the annexation. Protesters said city staffers have been secretive, condescending, and insulting. The buck, however, stops with the Fort Worth City Council, which directed staff to put the proposal together and will have the final say.

Two council members — Chuck Silcox and Clyde Picht — have said they would vote against involuntary annexations. “There are not enough police officers to cover what we need now in Fort Worth,” Silcox said. Other city council members are not yet willing to commit to annexation but hesitant to criticize the plan. Most city leaders are absorbing information and trying to make up their minds, said Councilwoman Wendy Davis.

The city bumbled its public relations from the start, but protesters contributed to the contentious standoff by letting their emotions and accusations run amok. They demanded answers and then sometimes failed to listen. City officials revealed their intentions early in the game and then were blamed for not having all the answers immediately. The city was in a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” situation.

Pivec asked the city for detailed information and was told to submit freedom of information forms. She sought copies of mayor and city council communications, maps, campaign finance reports, and other materials — requests that officials told her would cost $690 to fulfill. “I contested it and filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office,” she said. “I got a letter back from the city attorney’s office justifying (the fee).”

Undaunted, Pivec approached Deputy City Attorney Marcella Olson at a public meeting and asked for help. Olson had much of the information Pivec wanted, and agreed to make copies for her. Olson went out of her way to be helpful. “I knew where the information was, and I knew how to get to it,” Olson said.

Two months after Pivec requested the information — and after numerous phone calls to city officials and the attorney general’s office — she finally had the goods. However, some information seemed to be missing. For instance, she asked for the names of property owners who had requested voluntary annexations. The Hyder family owns about 800 acres of Johnson County ranch land and is seeking annexation, but the Hyder name was not included in the materials Olson provided, Pivec said. The housewife turned activist wondered if the omission was purposeful, just another example of the city trying to be secretive and elitist.

Olson, though, said Hyder’s name was included in the packet she provided, listed in a mayor-to-city-council communication. Besides, if information were accidentally omitted, Olson would have supplied it upon request. “I had not heard back from her that she hadn’t got that,” she said.

Annexation rights of Texas cities have been around almost since the Alamo. The Municipal Annexation Act of 1963 more clearly defined the procedures and responsibilities involved and gave Texas cities power to annex areas without the residents’ consent. Part of the reasoning behind the law: the phenomenon of white flight from inner cities, which 40 years ago had begun to worsen urban sprawl and stretch big-city resources. High-income residents were moving out of the city limits but continuing to commute to their jobs, leaving a major city ringed with incorporated suburbs, ensuring a waning tax base and diminishing services. The 1963 law established the notion of extraterritorial jurisdiction — the stretch of unincorporated land outside the city limits over which the city has limited power, including the right to annex. Major cities’ extraterritorial jurisdiction extends five miles beyond their borders.

Lobbyist Susan C. Rocha, a former attorney for the Texas Municipal League, told land use planners at an Austin conference in February that in the last decade, as some groups began objecting to government limits on property rights, opposition to forced annexation has also increased.

The movement exploded in 1996 after Houston annexed a fashionable 20-year-old subdivision called Kingwood, where 50,000 people lived — the most ever affected by a single Texas annexation. The upscale neighborhood was completely built out, with houses appraised in the high six figures. Houston savored the thought of upping its tax base by $6 million. Former Mayor Bob Lanier said Kingwood residents and others suburbanites who moved outside city limits but continued to use Houston’s streets and businesses should pay. Suburbanites, on the other hand, frequently don’t feel an obligation to subsidize residents in town. County dwellers began to band into grassroots groups and exert their political power.

Other contentious annexations occurred in Austin and San Antonio. By decade’s end, the Texas Legislature began changing laws and making it harder for Texas cities to annex. In 1999, the legislature passed Senate Bill 89, which required three-year plans for annexations, negotiation with property owners, and full municipal services within two and a half years.

The Kingwood story carries a postscript that resonates with volunteer fire companies that now serve the communities surrounding Fort Worth. Houston leaders denied that Kingwood’s emergency services would suffer because of annexation. But not long after, two residents of the subdivision died while waiting for Houston emergency crews to arrive — crews that had difficulty finding the victims in the far-flung and unfamiliar community.

At the modest concrete-block and metal building that houses the Eagle Mountain Volunteer Fire Department, such considerations make for glum faces. The fire station and much of the rural area it serves would be annexed under the city’s plan. The department’s 28 firefighters and emergency personnel are in limbo. They’re worried about their communities and their futures. “We’re like rats on a sinking ship,” said Fire Chief Mike Barton.

Many rural firemen and ambulance drivers believe that the property and lives of the widely flung pockets of people they now serve will be at greater risk if Fort Worth chooses to annex. Tarrant County emergency workers are paid from money raised by a tax levied against residents of unincorporated areas. Fort Worth’s current plan to annex about 35 square miles will significantly reduce the amount of money generated for county emergency crews — particularly because the plan covers many of the most densely developed areas. “If Fort Worth does what it says they’ll do, we will have to disband and sell off our assets and give it to charity,” Barton said.

The 1990 courtroom movie Class Action described how a giant automaker used math and probability to determine whether to recall a car that, in certain situations, tended to explode and kill passengers. The automaker estimated the number of cars likely to explode and the amount of money that might be spent settling cases, and then compared that with the money required for a recall. When recall costs looked higher, the company chose to keep making the flawed vehicle.

Annexation critics said Fort Worth is dipping a toe in similar waters.

In the northwest and north zones, it may take several years for the city to fully extend its services. Fort Worth is gambling that it can annex areas and gradually replace the police, fire, and ambulance services before a tragedy occurs, Barton said. In the meantime, if somebody dies because of slower emergency response times, Fort Worth has the lawyers and money to drag a battle out for years.

A much more local case, added to the Kingwood scenario, has convinced some folks that the city is capable of that kind of cynical and sinister planning. Repeatedly, emergency workers and county residents interviewed for this story said Fort Worth showed its colors by fighting in court for two years to avoid paying full death benefits to the widows of two city firemen killed while battling a church fire — as volunteers —outside the city limits.

Riley, the development director, said Fort Worth would meet its obligations. “If we annex all these areas, we are going to have to build fire stations,” he said.

A drive through the Eagle Mountain area that Mike Barton’s fire crews now help protect reveals the complexity and confusion of the annexation battle.

On the west side of FM 1220, a breathtaking housing development called The Resort on Eagle Mountain Lake sports a grand entrance with a rock-filled fountain and a winding road that leads to homes valued in six figures. The neighborhood is one of those slated for annexation.

Across FM 1220 from The Resort is the Indian Creek community. The scattered houses and mobile homes are modest and old. The land is ripe for development. Barton complained that Fort Worth officials, who list controlling growth as one of their main objectives, included The Resort in their annexation plan, but snubbed Indian Creek, which generates far fewer tax dollars. If the annexation goes through, Fort Worth will be required to provide emergency services to The Resort, situated so far northwest that — until new fire stations are built — an ambulance might spend 20 minutes getting there, Barton said.

Meanwhile, he said, Fort Worth would not be required to provide emergency services to Indian Creek, whose residents could be left more vulnerable if county crews are cut back or disbanded. “That tells me it’s all about money,” Barton said.

The city’s development director said Indian Creek is currently pegged for annexation. That’s news to Barton, who recalls residents complaining to city officials at a public hearing after Indian Creek was left off the original annexation plans. “We never know when they’re telling the truth,” Barton said.

Some proponents say the more restrictive nature of annexations will force cities to look inward and boost their tax bases by encouraging the development of vacant properties already served by existing infrastructure. Fort Worth is among the nation’s worst offenders at allowing inner-city properties to stagnate.

A survey by The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., examined vacant land and abandoned structures in 70 large cities and found that Fort Worth had 83,000 acres of usable vacant land, second only to Phoenix. The survey showed that, on average, 15 percent of a city’s land was vacant. In Fort Worth, the average was a whopping 43.2. The survey said that re-using vacant urban land and abandoned structures could reduce the push to develop suburban pastures.

However, unlike many Texas cities such as Dallas and Arlington, whose growth potential has already been plugged by incorporated suburbs, Fort Worth still has plenty of room to grow. Because of the relative abundance of unincorporated land on its edges (except to the east), Fort Worth has far more annexation potential than other cities — 350 square miles of extraterritorial jurisdiction, compared to the current city area of about 320 square miles.

In the face of legal challenges, some cities, including Fort Worth and Houston, have begun to consider limited-purpose annexations. Under this scenario, a city doesn’t provide services until an area is annexed for full purpose in three years, and cities enforce only planning, zoning, health, and safety ordinances in the meantime. “The only plus is they would not tax you until they provide services,” J.D. Johnson said.

That’s not a suitable tradeoff for some, who note that they wouldn’t be able to vote in bond elections during the interim. “What position does that put you in?” Pivec said. “You’re living in a city, only paying fees for city services performed, and you’re not paying taxes — what voice are you going to have? That’s truly a second-class citizen.”

Many of the criticisms from annexation opponents are directed at Riley, the city’s development director. In a recent two-hour conversation with Fort Worth Weekly, Riley came across as a caring and friendly public servant in a tough spot — but also as someone who didn’t provide all the answers.

In talking about other annexations, Riley described the case of a predominantly Asian neighborhood known as Lake Crest Estates, an unincorporated area with more than half its residential lots already built on when Fort Worth decided to annex. Opponents complained that they had their own wells and didn’t need the city’s water service, Riley said — but afterward, about 60 percent signed to receive city water. The annexation was final in January 2001, and the city is set to begin laying water lines in this month, he said, although state law gives cities up to four and a half years to provide the service. “We’re ahead on that one,” Riley said.

What he failed to mention was that the city had earlier bypassed Lake Crest to annex the more upscale and outlying Lake Country Estates. The city included Lake Crest only after residents used the omission as proof that annexation was all about money.

Annexing areas that are mostly developed, while claiming that controlling growth is a primary reason for taking land, might appear to be contradictory. Yet controlling growth includes infrastructure, zoning, and environmental issues. “One rendering plant could mess up a lot,” Riley said. A development of $500,000 homes around Eagle Mountain Lake might appear to need little controlling, but if most of the houses are using septic tanks, the city’s water supply could be harmed.

Meanwhile, protesters have made a conscious effort to tone down their emotions and rhetoric. Heated accusations displayed in early public hearings were downplayed at the recent Texas Tea Party, where speakers bemoaned the state law instead of attacking the city and said they were more interested in protecting property rights than escaping taxes. “We didn’t attack anybody, and that’s what we set out to do,” Pivec said afterward. “We don’t hate Fort Worth. We love Fort Worth. We just don’t want to live there. That’s our right. You have to realize how emotional this was in the beginning. People were just floored when it happened. They don’t want it. People have to work through all those emotions that they feel. Once you work the emotions out, you can sit down and look at it logically. Were not wacko; we’re just normal everyday people trying to save some semblance of our lives.”

The emotions, the uphill battles against more powerful forces, and the inevitability of annexation have sapped the energy from some protesters. Volunteers at the Texas Tea Party grumbled that not enough people attended — about 300 showed up, out of the approximately 6,000 people affected by planned annexations. Even Pivec is flagging after months of fighting City Hall. “I’m so sick of this,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “I just want to go back to cleaning my house and taking care of my children.”

Moments later, though, she is filled with fire again, berating what she sees as the unconstitutional nature of the current system. “All that most people want is a voice in the process,” she said. “Government should never be forced on anyone. It should be a vote. Most people don’t feel like the country was founded on forcing government on you. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and they took the most painful way to do it.”

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