A group of county residents are gearing up to fight Rock Hill as the city threatens to cut off their water if they don't agree to annexation by Wednesday.
City officials said in a Aug. 30 letter they would discontinue water and sewer services to residents in and around Miller Pond, Miller Pond II, Summerwood, and along the S.C. 161 corridor who do not to return annexation petitions by noon on Wednesday.
Residents who agree to be annexed won't be affected, said Bill Meyer, the city's planning and development director.
As of Friday, the city has annexation agreements for about half of Miller Pond II and Summerwood properties, but only one from Miller Pond, which has over sixty properties, Meyer said.
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As the deadline looms, the Miller Pond's home owners association is resisting annexation, which is part of the city's effort to control commercial development along the S.C. 161 corridor. Residents' reasons range from wanting to stay in the county, not wanting city services or their costs, and having questions about the legality of the city's policy.
Some residents are preparing for when the city plans to disconnect service between Sept. 20 and Oct. 1.
"I'm going to get a Porta-potty, and I'm checking in to have water brought in holding tanks," said Barb McGoye of Miller Pond.
With her husband out of work, McGoye has been supporting her family for the past seven months. She fears that added taxes and other expenses will make her home in Miller Pond unaffordable, a common argument among home owners.
"If they add more taxes to my bills, my house will go into foreclosure, because I'm barely making it right now," she said.
Tanya Campbell is pregnant and due today. She lives in Summerwood with her 8-year-old twin sons and her husband Lavon Campbell. They receive sewer and water from the city and aren't sure what they'll do if the city terminates their services.
"I'm hoping it's an idle threat, because I hate to think they would turn water off for customers who have paid," said Campbell, who feels the city should annex other areas of county already surrounded by the city before her neighborhood.
"The city has really put us in a bind," said David Grigg, president of the Miller Pond home owners association.
Grigg said fighting the city means risking losing water, which will be hard on the elderly, the ill, and families with children. But agreeing to annexation will bring added financial burden when many home owners are already struggling and don't feel the city's policy is fair in the first place.
Seeking legal help
The neighbors have retained Jim Meggs of Columbia, who worked as an attorney for the city of Columbia for 25 years.
Meggs said he's reviewing documents and cannot say whether residents have a case against the city. He said he will most likely ask the city to postpone terminating services to give him and residents more time to figure out where they stand.
In South Carolina, 75 percent of property owners holding 75 percent of the property value being annexed must agree to annexation. Policies such as the city's aren't 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.
One argument for annexation is that residents who live just outside city limits benefit from city services such as the city's road systems. Annexing the residents ensures they help pay for the benefits. Annexation also helps the city avoid "doughnut holes" of county territory surrounded by the city as it grows.
City officials say their right to terminate services comes from a contract with the neighborhoods' original developer.
When developer Bill Hargrove chose city water for Miller Pond, he signed a contract agreeing to annexation in the future. That obligation was passed to residents and recorded as a restriction on the property, city officials say.
At a meeting with homeowners in July, city officials said the agreement was likely overlooked in the homeowners' thick stack of materials presented as a real estate closing. Some homeowners dispute that claim.
More than 20 other neighborhoods in the county have similar agreements that the city hasn't acted on yet.
York County Council Chairman Buddy Motz wondered why the city won't pursue a legal avenue of achieving annexation before terminating residents' services.
"There are a lot of questions out there," he said. "If they are so sound on their footing for jurisdiction authority, why are they requiring (residents) to sign another form?" he said.
"From our perspective, we're looking at a legal agreement," Meyer said. The conflict , he said, is about "the willingness of the residents to live up to the terms of the utilities agreement."
"I think we're sensitive to the situation these folks are going through, but at the same time, that's the legal situation we're in," he said.
For many residents, terminating services is simply inhumane, regardless of whether the city claims authority to do so.
Tanya Campbell said if it turns out that the city's policy is legal, she'll sign the annexation agreement.
Both McGoye, a hospice nurse, and Lowell Ashe, also of Miller Pond, are most concerned with how the city's actions will impact elderly and disabled people in the neighborhood.
Cutting off residents' water "is going to look real good in the news across the country," said Ashe, who's ready to dig a well, the cost of which would beat paying "thousands of dollars for the rest of my life" to the
Who pays what, when?
Homeowners in Miller Pond and other areas slated for annexation, who pay $1,700 in county property taxes, also would pay:
About $1,000 more in city property taxes
27 percent more in vehicle property taxes
One-time fire service and garbage can fees of almost $600
About $250 in annual sanitation and storm water fees
Residents wouldn't be billed for city taxes until the end of 2011, but other fees for services would go into effect with annexation.
Some fees, including a $495 fee for fire service, would be spread out over time to lessen the impact.
Many property owners will see a 50 percent reduction in utility costs, but not Miller Pond residents, who have septic tanks and only receive water service from the city.
city, he said.
"Cut if off," said Ashe. "I don't care. I've got a swimming pool full of water."