Miller Pond residents have 10 days to sign and return Rock Hill's annexation petitions or their property could be seized as collateral until they do.
In an order filed Friday in the York County Clerk of Court's office, Circuit Court Judge Thomas L. Hughston ruled in favor of the city in an ongoing dispute over whether residents can be forced to be annexed.
The order states that residents have 10 days to sign and return petitions. If they don't,
The York County Clerk of Court is directed by the court to sign for them.
Residents may be held in contempt of court.
Residents may face financial penalties or have their property held as collateral to compel them to sign.
Consequences for being held in contempt of court range from financial penalties to serving time in jail, said York County's clerk of court, David Hamilton
Hughston found sufficient cause to hold residents responsible for the city's court and legal costs, but postponed a ruling on the matter, the order says. He hopes the city and residents work something out before bringing the matter to court.
The city has 60 days to seek a court order asking that residents pay the city's tab for defending the lawsuit. City officials would not comment on how much those fees will be.
"As in any litigation there are decisions to be made following the court's ruling," Assistant City Manager Jimmy Bagley said in a statement released Friday. "We do not want to interfere with that process. Out of respect for the communities involved we are not going to make a statement at this time."
"We're of course disappointed," said Attorney Jim Meggs who's representing the Miller Pond residents, "but we'll meet next week and pick a path."
Residents have 30 days to file an appeal.
The city first asked Miller Pond, other neighborhoods, and businesses just west of Walmart on S.C. 161 to sign annexation petitions last summer. When residents refused, the city said they were legally obligated based on an agreement with the neighborhood's original developer. Under that agreement, the city promised to provide water to the still undeveloped neighborhood in exchange for annexation at a later date. The developer signed the agreement, and the obligation to annex was passed on to homeowners.
The agreement states that residents must sign annexation petitions as the city presents them, or risk losing their water service. When residents refused, the city threatened to turn off their taps. Then the residents sued.
Many S.C. cities use similar annexation methods, which help cities grow despite the state's strict annexation laws. The state requires the approval of three-quarters of all property owners who hold three-quarters of the property value to annex.
A city's threat to end services if residents don't agree to annexation provides a way to ensure the city gets the approval it needs.
David Grigg, Miller Pond homeowners association president, said the residents have great respect for Judge Hughston but they disagree with the ruling.
"We don't know how it's a request if you're forced to sign something," Grigg said.
"We believe an individual's signature just like their vote should be held sacred," he said. "We don't believe their signature should be negotiated away from them in some backroom deal between the developer and the government."
Court upholds city
Hughston heard arguments from attorneys representing the city and the residents last month. The dispute focused on whether the city's annexation methods were legally sound.
Meggs argued that the city was employing coercive tactics to secure approval from residents and questioned whether the annexation agreement was a legal, binding document on residents.
Citing complicated legal definitions, he argued there are aspects of how the agreement was created that make it unenforceable on Miller Pond property owners. He also urged the court not to uphold a practice that denies residents the right to choose annexation.
City attorney Mark White argued that the city's policy is fair and common among municipalities. To strike it down, he said, would be to stunt the city's growth and cause immeasurable harm to the city.
Hughston upheld the city's practice, ruling that state law allows cities to require annexation in exchange for extending city water and sewer services beyond city limits.
Legislators look ahead
State Reps. Gary Simrill and Ralph Norman, both Rock Hill Republicans, said they believe the city's annexation policy goes against the spirit of the state's annexation law. The law, they say, intends for people to have a choice in annexation, but the language is vague.
The Miller Pond ruling will surely spark new debate over the issue when the Legislature convenes in January, they say.
Simrill said he hopes to introduce legislation to prevent cities from "using water as a weapon." Norman said the state needs a law making annexation agreements more visible to property buyers.
Some residents claimed they never knew about the annexation agreement or whether it was included in their closing documents, though that point did not come up in court.
The only good news, Norman said, was that the case has "heightened awareness" about the problems with annexation:
"If we pass some good legislation, people will know what they're getting into."