Another North Texas city is rushing to grab land while it still can – and another group of landowners who are mad about being railroaded is fighting back.
The City of Mesquite is trying to rush through hundreds of forced annexations in Kaufman County before a new state law takes effect December 1 that will ban many Texas cities, including Mesquite, from annexing property without the owners’ consent.
“Just leave us alone,” says Ronna Smith, one of the landowners targeted for involuntary annexation. “We’re in Kaufman County. They’re in Mesquite. That’s all there is to it. We don’t need them out here. We don’t want them out here.”
Smith’s neighbors agree. They don’t want to be annexed.
On Saturday morning, Smith and about 200 of her neighbors upset by Mesquite’s proposed land grab packed a town hall meeting hosted by Kaufman County’s State Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Forney) to talk about the city’s annexation plans – and to make plans of their own to oppose the city takeover. They’re unified against becoming part of Mesquite, which lies mostly in Dallas County, and say they plan to fight the forced annexations “until the end.”
Their fight began last month, when Mesquite’s city council decided to notify over 500 property owners in unincorporated areas of Kaufman County that it intends to annex them into the city within just a few weeks and without their consent.
Current law still allows cities to expand by annexing property in their extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) – unincorporated land adjacent to city boundaries – without owners’ consent. Senate Bill 6, passed during this year’s special legislative session, will require cities like Mesquite that are in counties with 500,000 or more residents to get landowners’ approval before annexing them.
Had lawmakers passed annexation reform during the regular legislative session, the new law would already be in effect and property owners would be protected from Mesquite’s land grab. But they’re not yet.
City Manager Cliff Keheley acknowledges that Mesquite is trying to push through the annexations before the law changes in December. After that, the city knows it won’t be able to get landowners to join them voluntarily.
Kaufman County residents at Saturday’s town hall confirmed the city’s belief. “I don’t want to be in Mesquite, and I don’t want to be in Forney,” town hall attendee Denise Tramel said. “I moved from Mesquite because I didn’t want to live in a city.”
Gooden agrees with his constituents that forced annexation isn’t right, nor is Mesquite’s rush to dodge the new property rights protections he helped enact.
“Mesquite’s attempt to beat the clock is in violation of the spirit of the law that was passed to stop these land grabs,” Gooden said. “It’s our intention to fight this thing to the death.”
Gooden told the town hall crowd that helping residents fight Mesquite’s forced annexation plan would be his top priority until December 1, and he introduced a lawyer who will be working pro bono to help impacted landowners.
Property owners came prepared as well. They’re not just mad, they’re organized. They’ve set up a Facebook page, Kaufman County Residents Against Annexation to Mesquite, to share information, and Tracie Clay was helping fellow resident Laura Travis sell t-shirts and yard signs to help spread the word. The signs Clay brought to the meeting sold out in minutes.
They also plan to show up in force at the public hearings, as well as Mesquite City Council meetings – including tonight’s, where the city is set to discuss scaling back its annexation plan to include fewer properties.
“Some of the areas pose practical difficulties for providing full municipal services or have limited potential for development. During the Pre-Meeting, staff will provide further information on the proposed annexation areas with an aim toward narrowing down the options to those with the greatest long-term value for the City.”
Providing municipal services to annexed areas is a concern for both the city and targeted property owners. Town hall attendees said some recently-annexed properties have yet to receive the promised city services, and it’s estimated that providing utilities to the proposed annexation area will cost Mesquite taxpayers over $100 million.
In any case, county residents say they don’t need or want those city services, or the city’s taxes and regulations.
Mesquite isn’t the only North Texas city rushing to grab land while it still can. In Collin County, the City of McKinney is also pushing to complete forced annexations before SB 6 takes effect, while Weatherford, in Parker County, put its forced annexation plans on hold temporarily due to public pushback and now says it will wait until after December 1 so the people impacted can have a say.
“The decision you are making tonight is about property rights,” Fallon told the council. “And nothing is more sacrosanct to an American than property rights. Life, liberty, and property: These are rights that citizens have.”
Fallon added, “Cities don’t have rights, people have rights.”
Public hearings on Mesquite’s forced annexation plans are scheduled for October 16 and 23, and November 6. Council members can expect plenty of pushback from the people of Kaufman County. As one former city resident put it Saturday, “I live in the county and that’s what I chose.”
Whether Mesquite will respect the people’s choice remains to be seen.