North Carolina Municipal Annexation

May 1st, 2008
by Jason Kay

North Carolina’s involuntary annexation scheme does not raise constitutional issues, it raises political issues. The political power, vested in the people by the North Carolina Constitution, must be wielded for annexation reform in the legislature, not the courts.

All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all
government of right originates from the people, is founded upon
their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.

I. Introduction

Municipal annexation permits municipalities (cities and towns) to bring residents of outlying areas within the jurisdiction of a municipality.3 At the time an annexation is first contemplated, the residents of areas to be annexed are not within municipal jurisdiction and, therefore, are not taxed by the municipality, do not directly receive municipal services, and cannot vote in municipal elections. Annexation is imposed from without; new laws and regulations are brought to bear without invitation or permission. Yet, in the name of good government, each year more and more municipalities stretch out to govern those who have given no formal consent to be governed.

These factors make municipal annexation, particularly involuntary municipal annexation, a controversial issue, often generating strong opinions. Municipalities applaud it. Proponents of annexation have called it the “wisest urban policy in the country.”4 Annexed residents decry it. Opponents of annexation have loudly upbraided the policy, arguing that it needlessly “trample[s] civil rights, voting rights, and property rights.”5 The municipal self-interest and citizen angst that surround involuntary annexation have led to persistent questions over the “wisdom” of a policy which, although permitting easy annexation, to be sure, disenfranchises annexed residents, incentivizes acquisition of the rich, and ignores the poor.6

The North Carolina Supreme Court appears to have acknowledged both sides of the debate, while remaining largely deferential to the annexation scheme devised by the General Assembly. The Court has upheld the validity of municipal annexation against multiple, strident challenges, stating that “[t]o suggest … that ‘inequality and injustice … is inherent in the concept of forced annexation’ is to ignore reality. Annexation does not bring the burden of taxation without accompanying benefits.”7 But the Court has not adopted a purely favorable view of annexation, stating that “[i]nvoluntary annexation is by its nature a harsh exercise of governmental power affecting private property .…”

This paper discusses the (1) history and purposes of municipal annexation in North Carolina, (2) primary constitutional and statutory requirements of municipal annexation, (3) most common legal challenges, and (4) status of current legislative reform efforts. Discussion of these aspects of annexation leads to the inevitable conclusion: the annexation statutes in North Carolina are not easily susceptible to constitutional challenge. The North Carolina Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court have, in response to repeated attacks on the annexation statutes over several decades, defended the constitutionality of North Carolina’s annexation scheme. The remaining viable constitutional challenges to annexation, therefore, involve the unconstitutional effects of annexation and primarily focus on race-based or takings-based violations. Statutory challenges remain effective. In light of the extensive case history surrounding the constitutionality of the annexation statutes, it appears that opponents of involuntary annexation have their best hope of annexation reform in the General Assembly, where the democratic process permits a louder voice.