County residents fighting annexation have sued Rock Hill, asking a judge to at least temporarily stop the city from shutting off their water and to settle a dispute over whether residents should be forced to join the city.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Circuit Court, attorney Jim Meggs asked for an injunction to stop the city from carrying out its plan, beginning Monday, to discontinue service to property owners in Miller Pond and two other subdivisions along S.C. 161 who refuse to sign annexation petitions.
The residents also filed a civil action against the city, arguing that it's unlawful for the city to carry out its threat to terminate water services and that the city has no right to annex residents.
"We're trying to get justice," said Meggs, who hopes to know by today when a hearing might be scheduled.
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The move comes after the city temporarily postponed its plan to cut residents' water off to discuss the matter with residents and their attorney. Those talks were unproductive with both sides blaming the other's unwillingness to compromise.
On Wednesday, the city resumed its plan to terminate service to neighbors refusing to sign annexation petitions starting Monday.
The city will notify homeowners that their taps will be turned off through flyers, telephone calls and blue flags in their yards.
On Thursday, city spokeswoman Lyn Garris declined to comment, saying only that the city has known residents might pursue legal action.
Residents expressed mixed feelings about taking the matter to court.
"I don't think any of us realized how painful this could be," said David Grigg, president of the Miller Pond homeowners association.
"We're waiting to see if we're going to get a hearing and maybe get a little justice."
Allen Straw, treasurer of the homeowners association, said it was unfortunate that the property owners had to sue the city.
"We certainly don't take any enjoyment in doing it," he said, "but we want to stand up for what we feel is right and defend our families."
Straw has two small children and says the conflict consumes his time. But the fight is worthwhile, he said.
"Water is just crucial," he said. "You don't realize how much you use until you realize this could go away."
Resident Becky Brinkley said it's been an ordeal with three kids.
"It can be stressful because you don't know whether you're going to have water or not," she said, adding that despite that stress, she's never thought once to cave in to the city's pressures.
"It's the way they handled it," she said. "They basically said you sign this or we're shutting your water off."
How we got here
The city is trying to annex three county neighborhoods - Miller Pond, Miller Pond II and Summerwood - and properties along the S.C. 161 corridor in an effort to control commercial development in the area, which sits roughly 7 miles northwest of downtown Rock Hill.
At a July meeting, city officials asked residents to consider the benefits of living in the city - the schools, the roads, the cultural resources, the fire and police services - many of which the city said they already enjoyed.
But residents argued that they don't want the city's services or their costs.
Residents of Miller Pond, where home values range from $216,000 to $411,000, are now leading the fight against the city.
A common practice
The city maintains its right to annex stems from an agreement it formed with the neighborhood's original developer long before houses were built or lots were sold.
In the agreement, the city agreed to provide utilities in exchange for the promise to annex at a later date. That obligation was passed to future property owners, the city says.
Since July, the city has been asking residents to meet that obligation and by signing annexation petitions.
But some residents argue they didn't know about the agreement to join the city and are questioning whether they are legally obligated.
Rock Hill's practice is not unusual, said Merriam Hair, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina. The city has similar agreements with more than 20 county neighborhoods.
State laws require that 75 percent of property owners holding 75 percent of the property value must agree to annex and the land must be contiguous to city limits.
While the city usually requires annexation when it provides utility services, it can't do so until the property becomes contiguous. For some areas, that could take years. The policy ensures it will happen, Hair said.
The suit against the city
Residents are fighting not only the city's threats to terminate service, but their claim that residents are legally obligated to annex.
In their lawsuit, residents claim, if Rock Hill turns their water off, the city will have:
Violated county ordinances and the city's own utilities service contract, which says nothing about the obligation to annex and promises to provide "continued and uninterrupted utility service."
Breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in its utilities service contract for utilities
Denied residents their constitutional right to due process
Discriminated against residents by terminating services while having never resorted to coercive tactics to require annexation from other incorporated areas.
Residents hope the court will prevent the city from terminating water service to the neighborhood and rule that the city ultimately has no right to annex the property.
On Thursday night, residents held a neighborhood meeting to discuss what happens next. Meetings have become a regular occurrence, Straw said.
"There's one thing I don't think the city counted on, and that's the resolve of this neighborhood," he said. "We care about each other. We're going to see this thing through."