Almost two dozen York County neighborhoods could be forced to join Rock Hill or face losing their utilities if the city ever wants to annex them, according to a long-standing city policy.
The policy says that in exchange for water and sewer services from Rock Hill, county residents can be annexed into the city.
Three neighborhoods - Miller Pond, Miller Pond II, and Summerwood - face that dilemma as the city attempts to annex them in an effort to control commercial development along the S.C. 161 corridor west of Walmart near Newport.
City officials confirmed that Emma Ridge, Old Pointe, Richards Landing and several other county neighborhoods with city water or sewer will have to annex if the city wants them. If they refuse, the city might turn off their taps.
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The city says its annexation policy is intended to reduce the number of "doughnut holes," or pockets of county neighborhoods encircled by the city. Those areas create problems for law enforcement and other public services.
"It's just not economic or efficient to have these enclaves for years on end," City Manager Carey Smith said.
Julie Swanson of Emma Ridge says she had no idea. "It's too bad too because you don't really gain anything" in annexation, she said.
Charles Pastene said he's "infuriated" that he was "unaware of any potential" for Richards Landing to be annexed.
"It was never mentioned at closing, and had it been, it would have influenced my decision" of where to live, said Pastene, who wants to remain in the county.
Jeffrey Spencer of Old Towne had heard before that having city utilities means annexation is likely, and he isn't bothered by it.
Miller Pond residents intend to fight annexation.
David Grigg, president of Miller Pond's homeowners association, said residents don't want higher taxes and don't need city fire, police, trash services or sewer. Most are on septic systems and only get water from the city. Also, the timing is poor, they say, as several families have members out of work.
While water costs will decrease, a homeowner who pays $1,700 in county property taxes will pay about $1,000 more in city property taxes in addition to a 27 percent increase in vehicle property taxes, one-time fire service and garbage can fees of almost $600, and about $250 in annual sanitation and storm water fees.
The decrease in water costs will vary according to use. Grigg said the city told him his would decrease about $300 a year.
Claiming they knew nothing about the city's policy, residents criticize the city for pressuring them to annex using methods they call "sneaky" and "unethical."
The confusion with annexation arises in how the city reaches agreements with neighborhood developers and how the agreements are communicated to buyers.
When developer Bill Hargrove chose city water for Miller Pond, he signed a contract agreeing to annexation in the future. That obligation was passed on to residents and recorded on public record as a restriction on the property.
When the city asked residents to sign a petition in support of annexation, residents were given a choice - with consequences.
City officials have two ways to compel residents to sign an annexation petition. First, they can terminate services. While the city has never needed to, Smith, the city manager, said cutting off water and sewer is an option.
Second, annexation agreements made around 2000 and later include a "Power of Attorney" clause giving the city attorney the right to sign the annexation petition for residents if they refuse.
At a meeting last month with the neighborhoods, Smith told residents of Miller Pond that the city had that power for their neighborhood. He later said that was a "misstatement" because Miller Pond was formed before the provision was added.
As for the other two neighborhoods, Smith has changed his stance regarding the power of attorney. "We are probably not planning to use that provision," he said.
Because residents still have time to sign the petition, Smith didn't want to discuss the city's next step.
Grigg said Miller Pond residents oppose annexation. Their homeowners association has formed a committee to seek legal advice.
"I can tell you one thing," he said, "they're not going to get those signature cards."
A fair policy for whom?
In South Carolina, cities can't force residents to annex. For a community to annex, three-quarters of its residents who own three-quarters of the property value must agree. Rock Hill's cut-off and power of attorney policies help the city meet that requirement.
There have been many attempts to change the law to make annexation easier, but none have succeeded, said S.C. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, calling the city's policy "heavy handed" and wrong.
S.C. Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, believes the policy "runs outside what the spirit of the law is" by eliminating people's right to choose.
Neither Norman nor Simrill said Rock Hill's policy is illegal. But Simrill said that one day, a court might have to decide if it's fair.
Rock Hill's practice is not unusual, said Merriam Hair, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
While the city usually requires annexation at the time it provides services, Hair said, it can't do so until the property becomes contiguous. For some areas, that could take years. The policy ensures it will happen.
Columbia and Spartanburg have similar approaches to annexation.
One argument for Rock Hill's annexation policy is that residents who live just outside city limits benefit from city services, Hair said. For example, those residents benefit from the city's road system. Annexing the residents ensures they help pay for the benefits.
Property sellers are supposed to inform buyers about the annexation agreement, according to Rock Hill policy. But, as Rock Hill real estate appraiser Rob Murdock noted, sometimes that's difficult.
"That's the reason we have things filed" on public record, Murdock said. County neighborhoods unaware of the policy could be "ticking land mines," he said. Residents who feel tricked won't respond well to the city.
To avoid tensions, Murdock believes something could be done to improve what he sees as a "systemic" problem, such as writing deeds so they make restrictions clear.
Rock Hill real estate attorney Walter Heinsohn says that effective attorneys and informed buyers are key. It's the responsibility of a buyer's attorney to find all restrictions.
When he sees a restriction that could make a property seem less valuable, he brings it up.
The obligation to annex would not devalue the property. And if the homebuyers don't bring it up, Heinsohn said he wouldn't either adding that informed buyers will be sure they understand everything they're agreeing to before they sign.
Closing is not the time to bring up restrictions, he said. And after a homebuyer signs on the dotted line, "It's too late."
Smith said he hopes residents will see the benefits of living in the city, includingreduced traffic and crime prevention.
"I know it's a difficult challenge for many people now," he said. "They did make a commitment to follow through on this."