Voters’ rejection of five involuntary annexation proposals in August 2002 hasn’t prevented Columbia from expanding its borders.
In the 17 months since that vote, the city has approved 24 voluntary annexations encompassing nearly 400 acres. Much of that land is within the 8.6 square miles of territory targeted by the ballot issues. The vast majority has been zoned for single- or multi-family homes.
It’s a trend that almost certainly will continue. City officials remain adamant about the merits of an expanding city and aggressive in their pursuit and approval of voluntary annexations.
Landowners and developers are biting on the lure of city services and infrastructure, primarily sanitary sewers. And, if approved, the Philips tract proposal, in one fell swoop, would more than double the amount of land annexed over the past year and a half.
Still, the hit-and-miss nature of voluntary annexations in parts of the urban fringe has created erratic city-county borders that leave residents and officials confused about who has jurisdiction.
Despite those problems, and in the face of continued reluctance by some county residents to become part of the city, Mayor Darwin Hindman said he believes annexation is crucial to ensuring orderly growth and a healthy future for Columbia.
“There is a great danger in the city being zipped up,” Hindman said. “If developments around the city aren’t annexed at the time of development, they won’t be annexed. If rings or large areas develop around the city, they won’t be allowed to expand.
You could end with a buttoned-up city, which has far more disadvantages than advantages.”
Of course, annexation is nothing new. Columbia has become the largest city in mid-Missouri in part by steadily expanding since its original incorporation in 1826. The most significant expansion came during the 1960s, when the city more than doubled its size.
More recently, the city has expanded by at least half a square mile in each of the past four years. Voluntary annexation proposals, usually accompanied by a request for
R-1 zoning, have become commonplace on city council agendas. On Dec. 15, for example, the council approved three such proposals, annexing a little more than 20 acres and zoning it all for single-family homes.
Assistant City Manager Bill Watkins said it’s not often that city officials directly solicit landowners for voluntary annexation, but they do so occasionally. When planning new sewer lines, for example, they will approach some landowners within the targeted corridor.
“If there’s one (property) that is a piece in the whole picture, we’ll go out and talk to them or get someone to talk to the property owner,” Watkins said.
The desire to annex has the Columbia City Council contemplating new strategies. At a November meeting, it asked city staff members to explore the possibility of allowing people to hunt and shoot fireworks on larger tracts of land even after they’re brought into the city. That might be enough to sway some landowners.
The vast majority of annexation requests that come before the council are unanimously approved. The consensus, it seems, is that annexation is key to keeping Columbia on the right path.
Hindman cited St. Louis as an example of a city that’s struggling because it failed to stay ahead of development on its fringes.
“It’s a buttoned-up city that’s now only three times the size of Columbia,” Hindman said. “It has terrible financial difficulties and can’t control its destiny. It’s surrounded by jurisdictions that prevent it from expanding. We’ve got to avoid that.”
Watkins said failure to steadily expand can stifle a city’s economy.
“I think if you look at cities that haven’t grown, you would see declining tax bases and services being cut back more than in other communities,” Watkins said. “I think that what a community should try to do is to find a rate of growth that is enough to sustain the local economy and create growing numbers of jobs.”
Failure to annex, Watkins said, won’t stop growth. Rather, developers will simply build new businesses and subdivisions just outside the city.
City Manager Ray Beck noted that Columbia is nearly surrounded by developed properties, many of which were included in the 2002 involuntary annexation pitch.
While city and county voters soundly defeated those ballot issues, city officials still believe the initiatives were a good idea.
“Much of the focus of (the involuntary annexation) was to try to bring (land) under the city’s ability to plan and provide infrastructure on a little more than a piecemeal basis,” Watkins said. “We thought if we could get out in front of some of that, it was a good thing to do.”
Beck said the city will remain healthy if it continues to expand into the areas under the failed involuntary annexation plan. Missouri annexation laws allow the city to try another involuntary annexation after 2004.
“As long as we’re doing voluntary annexation where we would have liked to involuntary annex, we’re doing OK,” Beck said.
State annexation laws make involuntary annexations difficult to achieve, causing cities to rely almost solely on voluntary annexations. That leads to sprawl, erratic borders and islands of unincorporated property, Beck said. That, in turn, leads to confusion about whether city or county government is responsible for providing services to a given area.
“Islands are not desirable for the city or the county,” Watkins said, noting that they create confusion for 911 workers about whether to dispatch city police or county deputies to certain sites and that the city has “spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars correcting undersized water lines” after annexing land that used to be served by rural water districts.
Also, he said, there are “situations where roads are partially maintained by the county and partially by the city. They are difficult to administer and not very efficient.”
John “Jack” Donelon lives in one of those islands of county land near Teton Drive. The city in May annexed 2.6 acres near his neighborhood and zoned it for single-family homes and duplexes.
“Half of it’s the city and half is the county,” Donelon said of the neighborhood. “It’s complete stupidity. If you need fire or police protection, people will ask you which side of the street you live on.”
Donelon said there have been times when city officials weren’t aware of their responsibilities in the area.
“On Grace Lane on the west side, every year the county would come out and cut the right of way through the weeds,” Donelon said. “This summer they got about a foot and half tall. We ended up going to the city administration’s office, and the street department had to get it. The gentleman in charge of the street department wasn’t aware that the street portions were his responsibility.”
The main requirement for voluntary annexations is that land be contiguous with city boundaries.
City officials, however, prefer to annex undeveloped land so that infrastructure is built to city standards. Toward that end, the city for the past several years has used pre-annexation agreements, promising city sewers and other amenities if a landowner agrees to annex as soon as expanding city limits reach his or her property and to develop the land according to city regulations.
“Then you won’t have this question come up with inadequate construction and right of way,” Beck said. “We have these problems around the city (with property that’s already developed), and we don’t like to annex those in, but what alternative do you have for sewing up city boundaries but annexing the properties around these?”
Another relatively new strategy is to allow landowners to request annexation contingent on zoning. Years ago, city policy called for annexing land and zoning it first for agricultural use. Landowners, however, were sometimes reluctant to come into the city with no guarantee they’d later get the zoning they actually wanted.
Third Ward Councilman Bob Hutton said the primary reason people agree to have land annexed is to gain access to city sewer lines.
“If we don’t allow that, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said. “If we don’t do that, things will get built up in the county, and they won’t be up to our standards.”
Spencer Turner had his 3 acres along Mexico Gravel Road annexed in September after the city border became contiguous.
“Because the city had moved out to my borders and the sewer was right across from my border, it just made good sense,” Turner said. “It’s better than having a septic system that does not meet state regulations.”
Dennis Murphy, a lawyer, annexed his 10.9-acre property for sewer service and for business reasons. Because he runs his law office from the site, he needs a full-time paid employee. County regulations prohibited that.
“In the city, you can get a conditional use for one employee,” said Murphy, who lives off Vawter School Road. “I thought it was ironic: In the county I could have a pig farm, which I think a lot of people would find odorous, but I couldn’t have an office with one employee that wouldn’t bother anyone.”
Burton Schauf had 18.91 acres west of town annexed in September. Whether he’ll sell or develop the land depends on the fate of a proposed new interchange on Interstate 70.
“If there’s a major road coming off that interchange that intersects that property, maybe R-1 is not going to be desirable or the best fit,” he said. “The route of the road will dictate whether a home is going to be appropriate at this spot or that spot, or there will be some mixed zoning.”
Schauf said city amenities make the higher tax burden worth it.
“There are the obvious things: fire protection, refuse, ability to hook up to sewers. We have exceptional services in the city,” Schauf said. “We enjoy a lot of things here in Columbia that a lot of towns our size only dream about.”