Bill and Toni Biggerstaff loved living in the county, and if they had a choice, they would have kept it that way.
But when it came time to be annexed into Fort Worth, the Biggerstaffs and other families in the 109-home neighborhood sandwiched between Keller and Fort Worth had little power to stop it.
They signed a petition; they argued against annexation at the City Council meeting, pointing out the additional $3,000 a year in taxes they would incur, despite the already-stretched-thin city services in the far north, such as longer police call times and a lack of parkland.
Despite their efforts, the Fort Worth council voted unanimously in August to bring the neighborhood into the city.
“We went down to the City Council, and I found that to be humiliating, too,” Bill Biggerstaff said. “You go to the meeting and you have your time to stand up there and say your piece and then once everyone is done — the decision has already been made. It is painfully obvious the decision has already been made.”
City officials said they needed to annex the neighborhood to provide clear city boundaries for police and firefighters, and residents were already taking advantage of city services built around them, like roads, without paying the city tax rate.
Still, Biggerstaff said, city officials didn’t listen to their concerns, which included the residents being forced to take ownership of Fort Worth’s debt obligations, which they couldn’t vote on.
State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, who shares those concerns, has filed three bills in the Legislature to limit cities’ annexation powers.
“Cities have the right to grow and expand, but we also have to look to the rights of those who live outside the cities and their opportunity to have a choice in that annexation or the right to perhaps go another way,” said Art Martinez Devara, Burton’s chief of staff.
The bills are meant to correct “perceived unfairness in the system and looking at ways to balance the two interests,” he said.
The first bill filed, Senate Bill 456, would limit all cities’ extraterritorial jurisdictions — the land outside the city that city officials are allowed to be annexed — to half a mile from the city limits. Large cities like Fort Worth have an extraterritorial jurisdiction of 5 miles.
Mayor Betsy Price said the bill is “very troubling” and would especially affect Fort Worth, where several large developments are planned in its extraterritorial jurisdiction, including 1,755 acres in south Fort Worth owned by the Walton Group of Cos. About half of that property is in the extraterritorial jurisdiction, and the city plans to annex it as it is developed.
“We are not just doing annexation for the sake of annexation,” Price said. “We have a very good annexation policy and the vast majority of what we are doing now is owner-initiated.”
John Vick, president of Walton Development and Management, said in an email that a large extraterritorial jurisdiction is important to plan for growth in a “predictable, cohesive manner.”
“The potential effect of the passage of SB456 with respect to Walton’s holdings in Fort Worth is uncertain. But in general, I think it’s important for large, fast-growing cities such as Fort Worth to be able to proactively manage growth,” Vick said.
SB615 would eliminate cities’ abilities to impose limited annexation, which gives cities the right to regulate the zoning, planning, and health and safety ordinances in the area without providing services.
SB616 would enable residents in an area set to be annexed to petition to avoid annexation and instead create a general-law municipality.
Laws that would give residents more say in the process would help, Bill Biggerstaff said, and giving residents in an extraterritorial jurisdiction an alternative to annexation might encourage cities to sweeten the pot.
“There should be a way to be treated like adults, and have a say in it. There is no definitive or quantifiable criteria for avoiding annexation. You can scream, you can cry, you can get 100 percent of the homeowners to sign a petition. … And it is going to happen whether you want it or not,” he said.
Councilman Danny Scarth, who made the motion to annex the Biggerstaffs’ neighborhood and was part of an annexation himself, said he understands that residents want more say, and he thinks they should be able to delay the process but ultimately not stop it.
“It really is a two-sided coin for me,” Scarth said. “I certainly understand people’s desire to not have someone essentially forcibly annex them. But from the city’s standpoint, I also get why we need to be able to annex, particularly in enclaves, just for efficiency in service.”
Disputes involving annexation are not new to Fort Worth, which haspulled in hundreds of acres at a time since the early 2000s and faced accusations that it forced people to pay city taxes only to receive poor or limited city services.
Toni Biggerstaff, an avid runner, exercises in the area often and used to see Tarrant County sheriff’s deputies as they patrolled the streets. She said she felt safe.
Since the neighborhood was annexed, she said, she hasn’t seen a Fort Worth police car on her runs.
“I just don’t have that same feeling of safety,” she said.
But Price said the city in recent years has re-examined how it annexes and now proceeds with annexation only on owner-initiated properties and properties that present a public-safety issue. The city must also provide services like police and fire as soon as areas are annexed.
None of the bills have cleared committee deliberations.
Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984