Measure could kill big cities' ability to grow through annexation
Houston would not be Houston without the robust use of its power to gobble up the land surrounding it.
The city's enormous footprint, more than 670 square miles, is the result of almost a century of aggressive annexations, starting with areas along the Houston Ship Channel in the 1910s and essentially ending with the contentious acquisition of Kingwood in the 1990s.
Aside from simply expanding, Houston used its annexation authority to take strategic steps that ensured its continued economic health - for example, by taking in the sites of both major municipal airports, and by annexing 108 acres of mostly city-owned property that would be flooded to create Lake Houston, a major source of drinking water.
Houston has drastically curtailed its annexations in the past 20 years, partly because of restrictions imposed by the Legislature in response to protests over its taking of Kingwood, a master-planned community in northeast Harris County.
But it's better to have a power that's used sparingly than not to have it when you need it.
A bill passed by the Texas Senate last week would require voters in targeted areas to approve annexations through elections. Leaders of Texas municipalities large and small are resisting the measure, Senate Bill 6, which is part of Gov. Greg Abbott's push to limit the authority of local governments on a variety of issues.
An election requirement "would mean the end of annexations, effectively, for large cities," said Jerry Wood, who worked on annexations as an aide to Mayor Kathy Whitmire in the 1980s and later as an official in the city planning department.
Residents of unincorporated areas might be amenable to becoming part of municipalities like Sugar Land or Pearland. The prospect of being swallowed up by a behemoth like Houston - a symbol of everything they chose the suburbs to avoid - would create far more anxiety.
The bill's backers say it's simply wrong for people to be compelled to live in a city.
"Forced annexation is never right," said Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican who is the author of SB6.
If you think that phrase would look good on a bumper sticker, how about this one: "Freeloaders not welcome."
As Mayor Sylvester Turner pointed out in a letter to the Senate State Affairs Committee, more than 600,000 people who don't pay Houston taxes stream into the city every weekday to drive on its roads, work in its office buildings and enjoy its parks and cultural amenities.
"Unless Houston increases taxes on existing residents and property owners," Turner wrote, "our city needs to retain the ability to grow through annexation to support these commuters."
Turner and other big-city mayors, of course, don't enjoy a lot of influence with Abbott, who has limited his recent meetings with mayors mostly to the leaders of smaller cities. But SB6 could hinder the carefully planned growth of suburban cities as well.
Current law 'adequate'
Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, who testified against SB6 in Austin last week, called the bill "a significant overreach."
Later this year, the communities of New Territory and Greatwood will become part of Sugar Land, adding 30,000 residents to a population that's now about 88,000. Their annexation, approved by the City Council in 2016, began a decade ago when the city reached strategic partnership agreements with the elected boards of the nine municipal utility districts in the two areas.
The process included numerous public hearings and town hall meetings, giving residents ample opportunity to weigh in on the new governance structure, Zimmerman said. Some of these steps, including the partnership agreements, were required in the laws passed in the aftermath of the Kingwood battle.
"The current law provides for adequate representation," said Zimmerman. "If they had not been receptive (to annexation), they would never have entered into strategic partnership agreements."
Initially, SB6 would have applied only in counties with populations of 500,000 or greater, but that threshold was lowered to 125,000 through an amendment. This means fast-growing Houston area suburbs like Pearland, Conroe, Sugar Land and League City would be affected.
And to make it even more distasteful, Zimmerman said, the cities would have to pay for the elections that the state forced them to conduct.
SB6 now moves to the House, which has been less receptive than the Senate to Abbott's efforts to curb local authority. Zimmerman is ready to travel back to Austin to repeat the arguments that failed to persuade senators of the folly of this legislation.