KINGSPORT - For 27 years the city of Knoxville and Citizens for Home Rule have been in nothing less than a "barroom brawl" over annexation and property owners rights. Now a similar fight could happen in the Model City over annexations taking place in the Rock Springs community.
CHR, a not-for-profit advocacy organization located in Knoxville, has fought the city of Knoxville since 1980, filing numerous lawsuits in attempts to stop annexations. According to the CHR Web site, the organization is dedicated to the preservation of the legal rights of its members in the matter of unwanted annexation, and provides the legal and financial resources to file suit and block such annexations.
These legal resources have since been extended to some residents of Rock Springs.
When Kingsport annexed three areas of land along Rock Springs Road earlier this year, around 30 members of the community joined CHR (for $50 a year) and in turn were introduced to Knoxville attorney David Buuck. Buuck recently filed three lawsuits on behalf of these residents, all virtually identical and making the same claim - that the land owners never requested annexation and the ordinance passed to annex their property is an exercise of power not conferred by law.
City Manager John Campbell has said the city would move forward with other annexations in Rock Springs later this year, regardless of the lawsuits.
John Emison, president of CHR, said he sees these battles over forced annexations in terms of taxation without representation.
"They didn't vote to elect the city government, not had any say in the level of debt the city has previously contracted for. Yet, once they're voted in they have all the obligations just as if they were an active, engaged member of the community for decades," Emison said.
Debbie Poplin, deputy law director for the city of Knoxville, has been handling annexation lawsuits since 1990. Poplin said CHR has not won a lawsuit or stopped an annexation in Knoxville since she has been with the city.
"They've actually filed multiple lawsuits on one ordinance, and we're in the process of paring those down for the court system and getting cases consolidated where lawsuits pertain to the same ordinance," Poplin said. "Many have been dismissed over the years, and they've not slowed down Knoxville's annexation efforts."
Emison, however, contends CHR has won some court battles against the city of Knoxville.
"There are literally dozens of annexations for any number of reasons. Some due to direct court action and other things over the years that were rescinded and off the books and no longer hanging over people's head," said Emison, a geomorphologist by trade. "We've had quite a number of annexations dropped and rescinded over the years."
In 1998, Tennessee lawmakers mandated a "Smart Growth" process for all 92 of the state's non-metro-government counties.
It required county and city officials to work together to designate areas of the county into which cities would likely grow in the next 20 years, as well as areas that would develop but be serviced by the county - and a third designation for areas where no development was expected.
By law cities are allowed to annex - either by ordinance or referendum - within their urban growth boundary.
"I'm always for referendum ... because that's the only way property owners have any say in it. I don't understand why municipalities go to the lengths they do to ensure citizens who are affected by their proposed actions have no say in it whatsoever," Emison said. "They know the result of that referendum in advance; in all likelihood it's going to be no."
However, according to Poplin, Knoxville annexed by referendum a group of property owners who requested to be brought into the city, and CHR opposed the annexation.
Knoxville is approximately 102 square miles and has a population of 180,000 people. The city's urban growth boundary is 46 square miles, and in the last seven years the city has annexed around three square miles.
"We have an annexation policy that says if property is in the process of being developed on our borders and is already surrounded by the city on two sides, we will proceed with an annexation in that case," said Rick Emmitt, urban growth manager for Knoxville. "We scrutinize every annexation and make sure it fits. Just because property is in the urban growth boundary does not mean we will pursue an annexation."
Emmitt said the city does not do huge annexations. Rather it tries to annex property to preserve the city's tax base.
"We don't have a long-range annexation plan. The growth act is itself the plan," Emmitt said. "We're looking where growth is occurring, and we felt like the growth act itself was the annexation plan. The idea being by 2020 all of the property in the urban growth boundary would be within the city, was what the law implied."
In October 2006 the Tennessee Supreme Court refused to hear a case of a Knox County man who filed suit to prevent being annexed, arguing he had a right to a jury trial in the matter. Essentially, the high court's ruling upheld the state's annexation law provision of bench trials.
Emison called the ruling a serious disappointment.
"The only part we challenge is the part of law that takes juries away from us," Emison said. "We still think every Tennessean has a constitutional right of trial by jury.
"We think our constitutional fathers meant what they said, and with the court's recent refusal to consider that, doesn't mean the court for all times refused to consider that."