Retired civil engineer Tim Hess, who lives just outside the Austin city limits, received a letter from the city in August.
The letter told him that his five-acre tract was part of 83 acres set to be annexed by Austin off Old Lampasas Trail, near Spicewood Springs Road, an area known as the Upper Bull Creek neighborhood. A final decision would come from the Austin City Council in November, a mere three months away.
Hess said he went into panic mode. He and the other eight affected property owners scrambled to try and accomplish the nearly impossible: persuade the City Council not to annex them.
The owners launched an extensive lobbying campaign, which included testifying at a couple of marathon City Council meetings and meeting individually with the mayor and several council members. Rather than focusing on the more typical objection of higher property taxes, the Upper Bull Creek neighbors drew attention to their drainage and flooding issues, and the potential cost to the city to address them.
To almost everyone’s surprise, a narrow majority of the City Council agreed with them, voting 6-4 this month to not annex the properties off Old Lampasas Trail. Council Members Ora Houston, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Don Zimmerman, Leslie Pool, Ellen Troxclair and Sheri Gallo voted against annexation; Council Member Ann Kitchen was absent. (The council approved 10 noncontroversial annexations at that same Nov. 10 meeting.)
Zimmerman, easily the biggest anti-annexation advocate on the council, called the vote “historic.” City Planner Virginia Collier said a vote like that hasn’t occurred during her 16-year career with the city.
Several council members said they were convinced by the fact that 100 percent of the Old Lampasas Trail property owners opposed the annexation — a solidarity that was easier to achieve with only nine property owners in the mix. But Mayor Steve Adler wasn’t swayed by the unanimous showing of Old Lampasas Trail property owners.
“Ultimately I’m not comfortable leaving the decision about whether or not we annex to a popular vote of the people being annexed,” Adler said at the meeting.
Instead, the mayor tried to convince his colleagues that the area met the city’s criteria for annexation.
“He only got four votes — that was kind of shocking,” Zimmerman later told the American-Statesman.
Objections to annexation
Typically the city approaches annexations much like a business: Expanding the city’s borders is a way to protect and grow Austin’s customer base and bring in more revenue, while also realizing operating efficiencies. The city conducts a cost-benefit analysis for land it is considering annexing.
Texas law gives cities great leeway to annex properties in their extraterritorial jurisdiction, which is a 5-mile area surrounding the city limits. No vote of approval from the property owners is required, though the city does have to provide notice and hold public hearings.
In recent years, the people who own property outside Austin’s city limits have strongly objected to being annexed, saying they didn’t see any benefit from paying the higher city property taxes.
Zimmerman said when he block-walked throughout Northwest Austin during his City Council campaign last year, he often encountered older residents who were hostile about being annexed into Austin.
“Without exception, I’d knock on a door and a guy, maybe 70 years old, would say, ‘I deliberately moved out of Austin in the 1970s, and they came out here 30 years later and took my property against my will,’” he said.
More recently in Hudson Bend, a lakeside community of 3,300 people, some residents have grown so concerned about someday being annexed by Austin that they are thinking about trying to form their own government to stop it.
Alton Moore, one of the ringleaders of that effort, said that, after the Upper Bull Creek vote, the Hudson Bend residents are reconsidering their annexation prevention strategies. Moore said they now plan to meet with the entire City Council and try to persuade them to voluntarily release their community from Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.
“To get on the City Council’s agenda, you need (support from) four City Council members,” Moore said. “Previously, we didn’t even know if we could get four (votes). Now we are assured we can get to four one way or another.”
The drainage card
Monte Akers, a municipal law attorney, said the Upper Bull Creek vote could signal a change in annexation policies, or it could simply be “new (council) members not familiar with the advantages and necessities of annexation.”
Akers said council members could become more pro-annexation as time goes on. The mayor and most of the council members had never held elected office prior to last year’s election.
In the case of Upper Bull Creek, city staffers argued that the people who lived along Old Lampasas Trail should be paying city taxes because they likely regularly use city roads, parks and other amenities.
But the property owners presented a different — and ultimately more persuasive — argument to the council.
They suggested that the city had already done a poor job managing stormwater runoff from nearby neighborhoods, and that annexing them could potentially be expensive for the city. Many of the Upper Bull Creek properties include portions of Bull Creek, which Hess says is already experiencing erosion problems. At least one homeowner has already experienced flood damage.
That argument proved particularly salient to a City Council that has spent the past year working on flood buyouts in the Onion Creek area and grappling with the more recent flooding over Halloween weekend.
“The city needs to walk carefully in annexing properties because they seem to be gobbling up properties and not really paying attention to … all of the services they are obligated to provide through annexation,” Hess said.
What we reported
The American-Statesman reported in October on Austin’s continuing efforts to expand its borders — a growth one official called “essential to the economic well-being of the city” — and the differing strategies Hudson Bend and other communities have used to push back. A separate article Nov. 23 showed how an Austin utility project in the annexed neighborhood of North Acres has worsened that area’s flooding problems.