The town of Pineville has opted not to renew a 30-year-old annexation agreement with the city of Charlotte meant to keep municipalities from fighting over unincorporated tracts in Mecklenburg County.
As a result, Mecklenburg County is now resigned to officially taking on planning and zoning responsibilities for an area just west of Charlotte’s Ballantyne neighborhood.
Pineville Planning Director Travis Morgan said the town decided not to renew its annexation agreement in order to “avoid any confusion” over Pineville’s control over planning issues in what Mecklenburg County Attorney Marvin Bethune referred to as the “lost mile,” because it has seen little development activity since 2002, and has been largely overlooked ever since.
Morgan also said state legislation that was passed in 2012 made involuntary annexations, or municipally-initiated annexations, difficult, which was another reason Pineville didn’t renew its agreement.
“Our stance on that has mainly been residents-driven,” Morgan said. “We thought the most fair and balanced way to do it would be to let the residents decide.”
Avoiding land grabs
Charlotte established annexation agreements 30 years ago with all six adjacent incorporated areas in Mecklenburg County in order to delineate the boundaries of the territories that each municipality could potentially consider annexing in the future.
Over time, the land included in the agreements evolved into what was recognized in a 2002 North Carolina law as extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), which allows for cities and towns to have zoning authority for unincorporated properties adjacent to theirboundaries.
Exercising authority was not required, but most of the county’s cities and towns opted to do so, according to Jonathan Wells, planning manager for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department.
The purpose of giving zoning and planning authority for those areas to Charlotte and the other towns was to ensure that any development in those areas conformed to the vision and ordinances of the adjacent municipalities. The towns and cities that choose to do so then have responsibility for planning and zoning issues that arise in those areas.
Those agreements, in which parties promised not to attempt to annex certain tracts and thus prevented “land-grabbing at will,” expired in August.
Pineville was the only town that chose not to renew its agreement with Charlotte. Even Matthews, which does not have any more unincorporated land in its extraterritorial jurisdiction, nevertheless signed the agreement.
The other municipalities – Charlotte, Mint Hill, Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson – have ETJ land that has not been annexed. Charlotte’s ETJ area is by far the largest at more than 69 square miles, and the remaining ETJ areas are each 20 square miles or less.
In 2005, Pineville annexed all of its ETJ land, with the exception of 1 square mile that sits between Lancaster Highway and the South Carolina line and runs north along Lancaster Highway starting at Providence Road West up to Dorman Road.
Annexation more difficult
The legislation that went into effect in 2012 essentially upped the requirements for municipal governments to annex land involuntarily, and made it easier for residents to stop annexations from happening.
Prior to 2012, residents could stop an annexation only by submitting a petition-to-deny after the city or town had presented a plan for the provision of services and held public information sessions and hearings.
But with the new legislation, the petition has been replaced by a referendum, and incorporated areas are now required to notify the county of the proposed annexation and provide a description of the desired annexation area. If the majority of voters in the area to be annexed reject the annexation, the city or town must wait three years before attempting to annex the same area again.
The process for voluntary annexations remains the same, and the odds of residents in the lost mile pursuing annexation are slim, according to Morgan.
“The general consensus that I have is that everyone is happy the way it is,” he said.
But Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James, who represents that area, indicated that Pineville had different reasons for not renewing its annexation agreement.
“I think it’s because annexing an area that large with those number of houses would have changed the electoral makeup of the Pineville Town Council, because that would be a huge influx of voters,” he said.
Almost the entire lost mile is zoned residential, and the majority of existing development there is single-family subdivisions, such as the Cardinal Woods community, which contains 187 houses, and Woodside Falls and Woodside Village, which contain a total of 328 houses.
County gears up
But as development bounces back following the Great Recession, a few issues have arisen that have caused Mecklenburg County to jump back into regulatory processes that it hasn’t had to worry about for years.
Mecklenburg County’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, which assists in the interpretation of the county’s zoning ordinance and handles zoning appeals, was restored by the Board of County Commissioners on Nov. 18.
The Board of Adjustment has not been active for at least 10 years, according to Bethune, and was restoredin response to opposition to a proposed cell tower within the lost mile.
“Basically (that area) became inactive, and since it was inactive, the clerk’s office just left (the Board of Adjustment) off the radar, but now we have an appeal, so now we have to reactivate it,” Bethune said at the time of the board’s revival.
The Board of County Commissioners held a public hearing Dec. 2 on a rezoning request for the first time in four years, and it was for a 4-acre piece of property that received approval for a rezoning in 2008, but the development was stalled by the recession. The developer, Southern Apartment Group – Ballantyne LLC, has made revisions to its site plan since 2008, which required the property to be rezoned again. The company’s plans now include two office buildings as well as an apartment building.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller acknowledged at the Dec. 2 meeting the rarity of the county handling a rezoning, and James pointed a finger at Pineville for not providing any input on the matter because the property falls within its ETJ.
James said Pineville had given input on that property’s rezoning request in 2008, and questioned why it had decided not to get involved this time around.
“If they were involved in it (in 2008), they should be involved in it now,” he said at the meeting.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department will make recommendations Jan. 5 to the Planning Commission’s Zoning Committee for Southern Apartment’s request, and the Board of County Commissioners will make a decision at its Jan. 21 meeting.
James also pointed out that the county does not have rules that govern rezoning requests to the extent that cities and towns do. For example, cities and towns are required to allow residents to submit protest petitions on rezoning requests, which, if signed in sufficient numbers, then require a three-quarters vote by the City Council in order to be approved. The county, on the other hand, is not required to do that.
Wells said he believes the lost mile will remain unincorporated as long as the existing annexation laws are in place. He said those laws make it “nearly impossible” to annex property that is subdivided and developed – like that of the lost mile – as opposed to single, large parcels of land.