Proposed bills could change how Hattiesburg grows

Proposed bills could change how Hattiesburg grows

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - A pair of Mississippi Senate and House bills would require cities to include residents in plans for annexation.

Senate Bill 2198 was authored by Pine Belt Sen. John Polk, and House Bill 1428 was introduced by Lamar County Rep. Brad Touchstone as a companion bill to Polk's bill.

"The way I feel, you look up the definition of a city, it says it's for the people," Polk said. "It says nothing about 'for the businesses,' so my contention is a city should include people when it annexes or why do it?"

The bills would require municipalities to turn over rights to "zoning, subdivision or alcohol regulations to the board of supervisors of the county in which the territory to be annexed is located if a certain number of people residing in the territory are not included in the proposed annexation."

A section from Senate Bill 2198:

When any municipality desires to enlarge its boundaries by adding adjacent unincorporated territory, the governing authorities of the municipality shall pass an ordinance:

"Under our current annexation law, municipalities all over the state are allowed to do what we call strip annexation or corridor annexation," Touchstone said. "What that does is it brings development into unincorporated areas, and those people that live in those communities don't have a political voice in the type of development that comes into that corridor."

Polk said it is important to note this bill does not restrict cities from annexing unincorporated areas with a business corridor. He said the focus is ensuring county residents have a say in the development of their community, even if they are not city citizens.

"The city gets to still do it," Polk said. "They still get the sales tax. They still get the ad valorem. Anything they would have gained by that, and then they would be expected to provide the services to that area. But what they do lose is the right to zone, the subdivision law and then the alcohol beverage law of that particular county or area. I introduced a bill last year that was a lot more restrictive. It just said a city cannot annex without bringing the people in, and that, of course, did not get out of committee."

Touchstone said, "It's not designed to oppose annexation from any adjacent community, but only if you don't bring in at least 50 percent of the people that live in that area, then those decisions about zoning, subdivision regulations and alcohol regulation would remain with the people that live in that area through their supervisors. If strip annexation occurs in an unincorporated area, the residents of that area don't really have a say in the type of development that's happening. You know, philosophically, I believe that municipalities are designed to provide services to their citizens, and I believe that annexation is designed to allow a city to grow where they can provide more services to more people. Unfortunately, what we see today are a lot of municipalities use strip annexation as a tentacle to basically reach into unincorporated areas and extract tax dollars for the benefit of residents of another city. I'm opposed to that."

Polk and Touchstone said this bill would have a direct impact on the Pine Belt, especially because the City of Hattiesburg has discussed future annexations that would only include business corridors.

"Ever since I became a senator, I've watched, especially here in Hattiesburg, but it's happening in other areas of the state, I've watched it happen, and I'm thinking 'Is this really fair for the people?'" Polk said. "If it is about the sales income, things like that, then this bill would at least leave the people a voice in what their community looks like and what their community socially is."

Touchstone said, "I grew up here in Lamar County. I lived out here when all of this was unincorporated, and part of the city of Hattiesburg's pattern and practice has been to follow the Highway 98 corridor to extract commercial tax dollars out of that corridor for the benefit of the residents of the city of Hattiesburg. Unfortunately, the residents of Lamar County largely have lost the voice on the type of development that's coming in that corridor."

Polk said he does not expect many arguments against the bills.

"I really think that it's the best of both worlds if cities want to do this," Polk said. "They can still do it. We're not restricting that they do it, but we are saying we still want people to have a voice if you're not going to include the people in your city."

Touchstone said, "It just kind of evens out the political voice of all people that are implicated in these type of decisions, and that's my goal. I strongly believe people should have a political voice in all issues that are going on in their community, and right now, strip annexation just removes that voice from too many people."

Polk said House Bill 1428 has been sent to the municipalities committee, and Senate Bill 2198 has been sent to the county committee. The bill would have to pass through at least one of the committees before being presented to the full House or Senate.