The dispute between Rock Hill and the residents of Miller Pond has renewed a familiar debate over South Carolina's annexation laws - viewed by critics as quirky and antiquated and by supporters as just about right.
Rock Hill is home to leading voices on both sides.
South Carolina laws are tougher than those in North Carolina, where cities do not need permission from residents to annex property.
By comparison, S.C. cities must meet a double threshold by securing 75 percent of the landowners holding 75 percent of the property value.
That's a good thing, says state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who has fought proposed changes to the law dating back a decade.
Simrill called the city's handling of the Miller Pond situation "reprehensible" and a form of "heavy-handed blackmail."
"I support the law just like it is," Simrill said. "Some people say, 'Oh, it's antiquated.' No, we have annexation laws that favor the property owner. The city wants to change that law to favor government."
Late last week, city officials temporarily backed off a threat to shut off water service to residents of Miller Pond and two other subdivisions, most of whom had refused to be annexed into the city.
Rock Hill officials were invoking an agreement with the neighborhood's developer, in which the city promised to provide utilities in exchange for annexation at a later date. That obligation passed on to future property owners.
The City Council will discuss the dispute when it meets in closed session on Monday.
Mayor, state group support changes
Simrill and others who support the Miller Pond residents are at odds with the S.C. Municipal Association, which has lobbied since 1939 for changes to annexation laws. Mayor Doug Echols and other Rock Hill officials have been key players in the effort.
"Cities are not left with many choices," Echols said. "People who live in the urban boundary areas and are part of the urban area should be a part of the community."
Advocates say annexation helps the city avoid "doughnut holes" of county territory surrounded by the city as it grows. They say orderly growth allows for the delivery of efficient, cost-effective services.
In Rock Hill, those services include police and fire protection, parks and recreation programs, and curbside collection of garbage, yard waste and recyclable materials.
Former state Rep. Carl Gullick, R-Lake Wylie, whose district included part of Rock Hill, said doughnut holes cause big problems for fire departments, police and emergency crews.
However, he said, Miller Pond doesn't appear to fall into that category.
"There's a happy medium in there somewhere," Gullick said. "You don't want doughnut holes, but you also don't want...a thin little corridor of the city so you can capture the area."
Cities can only annex land that is adjacent to their limits.
Simrill said he's working on legislation that would further limit the power of cities to annex. His proposal would forbid cities from using the threat of water cutoffs.
State courts have long upheld a city's right to deny water service for properties not within its limits.
Kevin Sutton, a member of the Rock Hill City Council and a friend of Simrill, has said the city is justified in annexing the Miller Pond subdivision.
"He thinks it's a contractual agreement based on the original developer," Simrill said. "I disagree with that premise because the people that bought and built on Miller Pond - I haven't found one that was aware they had signed up for annexation at will.
"They're the ones that own the property now."
State Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, said he would support changing the law to make it tougher for cities to annex.
In the 1990s, Norman's father, Warren Norman Sr., took the city to court to block the annexation of his Northwoods Square shopping center. The Normans won a three-year legal battle and received city water and sewer service without being annexed.
"Seventy five percent is a reasonable percentage to use," Norman said. "The city has to sell itself on the advantages to three-fourths of the people. That's not an unreasonable number.
"I would even go to have it higher."
Changes to the law?
Rock Hill has been a leading voice in calling for changes to state law to make annexation easier for cities.
In 1999, the Municipal Association tried to restore an annexation method ruled unconstitutional in 1990.
That method allowed a city to annex an area if 25 percent of its residents sign a petition, and then the city's voters pass it by a majority vote.
Rock Hill was the only city to try this method during the law's short time on the books, from 1988 to 1990, former Municipal Association director Howard Duvall said.
During that time, Rock Hill tried to annex five areas. Only one vote passed - an area off Porter Road.
Simrill argues if Rock Hill or any other city wants to annex, it should make a case to residents about the benefits.