Judges void 182 Knoxville annexations

Knox County judges have voided 182 annexation attempts by the city of Knoxville — all dating back a decade or more — because of a state law that took effect earlier this year that prohibits annexation without the consent of property owners.

John Avery Emison, president of the anti-annexation organization Citizens for Home Rule, estimated Wednesday about two-thirds of the properties involved were homes and a third were businesses that would have collectively paid “many millions of dollars” in city taxes had the annexations taken effect.

Jesse Fox Mayshark, spokesman for Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, said the lost potential revenue would have been “substantial,” although no estimate has been made. Mayshark said Rogero had not attempted any involuntary annexations and her predecessor, Bill Haslam, now governor, had only attempted a few in his first term.

The court orders issued by three Chancery Court judges require the city to pay court costs in all 182 cases. The first basic filing fee in such cases is $186.50, which in 182 cases would be $33,943. Subsequent costs can vary widely, depending on proceedings in each case.

Emison said his “guess” at costs would be “several hundred dollars” on average. Mayshark said the city’s attorney had not calculated the costs yet.

Owners of the properties involved had filed lawsuits against ordinances passed by the Knoxville City Council for annexation of their homes or businesses that had never been decided. The city’s attorneys had continued to oppose the challenges to annexation, Mayshark said, until the Legislature stepped into the picture.

In its 2014 session, the General Assembly enacted a law that prohibited annexation by ordinance, although the law did not take full effect until May 15 of this year. Citizens for Home Rule, which acted as a coordinator in the Knoxville cases, agreed with city attorneys not to pursue further legal action in the pending cases until after that date, Emison said. But after that date — which followed the April adjournment of the legislative session, during which proposals to repeal or modify the law failed — CHR moved to have all 182 cases dismissed.

The Knox County chancellors — John F. Weaver, Mike Moyers and Clarence “Eddie” Pridemore Jr. — then issued almost identical orders voiding each annexation, processing them over a period of months, one at a time, to avoid clogging the court system, Emison said. CHR sent out a news release Wednesday announcing the total of 182 dismissals — the day when the city’s deadline to file an appeal of any of the court orders had passed.

In a sample order provided by CHR, the chancellor notes the new state law “prohibits any annexation by ordinance that is not both operative and effective before May 16, 2015.” Other provisions of state law say when a lawsuit is filed, the case suspends an annexation ordinance taking effect until a judge says otherwise. Thus, all the annexations in which a lawsuit had been filed were never “operative and effective” on May 15 and are now “invalid and void,” the chancellors said.

From a statewide perspective, Emison said Knoxville is unusual because CHR — founded in Knoxville in 1980 — urged annexed property owners to file lawsuits in Chancery Court, as authorized by state law, while landowners elsewhere were often unaware they could oppose annexation of their property.

“People would call or ask city people what they could do about it, and they’d be told they couldn’t do anything,” Emison said. “So they didn’t do anything.”

He said three annexations by the city of Newport, Tenn., have been invalidated in situations similar to those in Knoxville and one by the city of Murfreesboro, Tenn., involving a subdivision. He said there are a few other cases pending, which he declined to name pending a final official voiding of the annexations in question. But he said several areas where annexation has been highly controversial are not affected because no lawsuits were filed.

In Knoxville, Emison said, “most (of the 182 cases) go back to the abusive annexation policies of Mayor Victor Ashe.” Ashe was widely criticized for aggressive annexation efforts while serving as mayor.

Ashe, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Poland after his mayoral term, was traveling outside the country on Wednesday and not available for comment, his wife said.

The CHR news release says “a few” of the cases originated during Haslam’s mayoral administration. Spokesmen for Haslam did not respond by late Wednesday to a request for comment.

Emison called the overall result “a great day for private property owners’ rights and a great day for liberty in Tennessee.”

Mayshark said the result was not a surprise, considering the Legislature’s passage of the new law — which was opposed by Rogero and most other city government officials as an example of legislative interference with local control over local issues. While Knoxville has not recently pursued involuntary annexations, Mayshark said, the mayor views it as a “potentially useful tool” in future situations.

A follow-up issue pending in the 2016 legislative session is a proposal for deannexation, or allowing property owners previously annexed into a city to withdraw. Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who spearheaded passage of the 2014 law, introduced a deannexation bill earlier this year with support of several co-sponsors, but it failed to pass.

Carter has indicated he plans to bring the bill back up again next year. Emison said CHR enthusiastically supports the bill; Mayshark said Rogero is opposed to the proposal as another usurpation of local control.

Note: This expands and replaces an earlier post. A sample court order, provided by Citizens for Home Rule, is available by clicking on this link: anneation

(Note II: Mayshark initially said there were no Haslam involuntary annexation efforts, but Thursday said there were a small number. The original text has been changed to reflect this.)