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House passes annexation reform

ATLANTA - An uphill fight to give Georgia counties more say over annexation may have survived its toughest hurdle.

Toward the end of a marathon "Crossover Day'' session, the House passed compromise legislation Tuesday night that would take away cities' power to veto adverse decisions in annexation cases while limiting the reasons counties could cite in challenging annexation requests.

The bill breezed through 156-14, a surprisingly large margin of victory considering the difficult struggle it faced in reaching the House floor.

The relative ease of its passage could be a harbinger of smoother sailing from this point on, said Rep. Doug Holt, R-Covington, the measure's sponsor.

"The lopsided nature of the vote gives the bill a great deal of momentum going into the Senate, Holt said Wednesday.

Annexation reform has been Holt's signature issue since he came to the legislature in 2005.

Spurred to action by a controversial annexation case involving Newton County and the city of Social Circle, he has been working to change a law enacted early in this decade that provides for annexation disputes to be settled through mediation.

The process is nonbinding, so cities are free to ignore the recommendations.

A bill that Holt pre-filed last November called for settling cases through binding arbitration, which drew the support of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

But representatives of the Georgia Municipal Association objected, arguing that counties would abuse the process by challenging virtually every annexation request.

Weeks of difficult negotiations between the two sides led to a compromise providing for city-county disputes to be settled by an independent panel to be made up partly by elected officials from other municipalities.

Also, counties would be allowed to base their objections to annexation requests only on certain issues, including changes in zoning, land use and density.

To further sweeten the pot for cities, the bill would require counties to pay at least 75 percent of the costs of arbitration.

Holt said that would discourage counties from filing frivolous challenges.

Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, who worked with the ACCG and GMA to hammer out the deal, said the bill would protect both the interests of property owners who want to be annexed into a city and surrounding residents concerned about the increased densities that generally accompany annexations.

Before the vote, Holt pleaded with lawmakers not to tamper with the bill because of the delicate nature of the deal that had been reached between cities and counties.

"This is their agreement,'' he said. "If we tear this thing apart, we're going to be pulled into local politics.''

But House Majority Whip Barry Fleming, R Harlem, said the bill would lead to a rash of lawsuits over property rights from landowners denied annexation into a city by a non-elected arbitration panel.

"I think the right to live where you want to is tantamount to a property right,'' he said. "You're fixing to take that away.''

Fleming also argued that annexation controversies have erupted only in some parts of the state.

He proposed an amendment that would have allowed the General Assembly to adopt the provisions in Holt's bill only as local legislation applicable in areas where annexation is an issue.

The House soundly rejected the amendment after Holt's allies in the debate said it would gut his bill. Then, lawmakers approved the bill and sent it to the Senate.