COLUMBIA — South Carolina's largest city is looking to grow.
Columbia leaders have agreed to annex property more aggressively, including adding whole neighborhoods instead of just parcel by parcel. They are doing this despite the challenges posed by South Carolina law, which one council member calls the nation’s most limiting.
The city is serious about this. An annexation coordinator was hired last fall.
“We need to have a more thoughtful annexation policy,” Columbia Councilman Howard Duvall said. “It’s been neglected for years.”
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the city is prepared to make its best case for the economic and political value of being part of the city to nearby residents and let them decide. Money to help grow the city is included in the latest city budget taking effect July 1, he said.
Duvall and Mayor Steve Benjamin both say that they see all the area east of the Congaree River and inside the city’s interstate beltway as possible areas for annexation. Which ones actually make the move will be up to property owners in those neighborhoods, they said.
Annexation could provide the numbers needed to remain the state’s largest city by population in the 2020 census, even as Charleston continues to gain in population rapidly. The cities were very close in 2015 Census data, with Columbia listed at 133,803 and Charleston at 132,609. The Charleston area is gaining an average of 48 additional residents daily, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.
Duvall said he’s heard that people in Charleston are expecting it to be the state’s biggest soon.
“We’ll see,” he said.
Benjamin not only hopes to grow Columbia through annexation but also said consolidation of city and county government would be the best possible answer.
The community needs to face issues with a regional perspective, and a consolidated government would be the most effective way to do that, he said. Plus, Columbia would be able to add residents from elsewhere in the county, one with a total population of more than 400,000, the second largest in the state.
Annexation has been on the back burner for Columbia in recent years. Most recent uses of annexation have been for areas of just a few houses that were adjacent to the city limits or if a developer sought to put a new subdivision into the city.
Council members, however, are looking at larger areas near the city that are not in any municipality. Duvall mentioned as possibilities the neighborhoods that are along Interstate 26 near St. Andrews Road or Piney Grove Road. Other areas of the city that could be interesting for annexation discussions, Duvall said, include some of the areas along Shop Road including the Arthurtown neighborhood.
The Woodcreek Farms subdivision, far from downtown in northeast Richland County and known as one of the region's toniest neighborhoods, is in the city thanks to the actions of its developer. But neighborhoods such as Olympia and Arthurtown, much closer to downtown and in need of better services, are not, Duvall said. The areas essentially are part of the city, and its borders should reflect that, he said.
The city limits extend through Fort Jackson, and that means a huge swath of the eastern part of Richland is contiguous to the city. Annexation in those areas has not been explored except where a developer of a new property is interested in it, Duvall said.
Annexations can be controversial, such as the dispute over the city’s annexation of the Columbiana Centre mall on Harbison Boulevard by following the Broad River for five miles outside the city limits in 1990. That move was focused more on improving the city's tax base than adding residences to the city. The annexation was so hotly disputed that it spurred a court fight between Columbia and Irmo. Columbia won.
For residential areas, it takes a strong majority of people supporting an annexation for it to pass in almost all cases, according to Andrew Livengood, the city’s newly hired annexation coordinator.
“It’s not something you can force on a community,” Livengood said. “If the community doesn’t support it, it’s not happening.”
Reasons to annex
Why would communities want to join the city, especially if residents have concerns about higher taxes? The added costs of joining the city are often lower than expected when all the changes are taken into account, according to Tige Watts, a Columbia neighborhood leader and president of Neighborhoods USA, a national nonprofit that helps neighborhood organizations and offers coaching for neighborhood leaders.
Joining the city means an added layer of government, but it also can bring savings for homeowners, Watts said. One major driver can be the cost of water services. Columbia provides water services for many people living outside the city limits, but the rate those customers pay can be twice what city residents pay, Watts said. A potential savings for those who are annexed can come in the form of tax credits, such as a credit for sales tax, Duvall said.
Another benefit of annexation is a public safety issue. Many of the small “doughnut holes” where homes are surrounded by the city limits but remain in the county can cause confusion, Duvall said. Their police services should be provided by city police, not the Richland County Sheriff’s Office.
Eliminating “doughnut holes” is a major reason the city needs to do more annexation, both Benjamin and Duvall said. Several of those sites include north Columbia, southeast Columbia near Dorn VA Hospital and in the Rosewood neighborhood.
Annexation also brings the right to participate in city government, Duvall notes. People who live adjacent to the city essentially are having their local decisions made for them by others since they are not represented in city elections. Annexation gives them a voice in how Columbia is run, he said.
Benjamin said that an expanded city will be better able to meet regional challenges that require cooperation. He said the city will be open to any adjacent neighborhood that sees the value of joining the city and won’t be pushing to add businesses or high-end residential areas just to boost the tax base.
“We mean to be inclusive and have our process reflect that,” the mayor said.
Challenging laws in S.C.
The annexation process can be done in a number of ways in South Carolina, but none of them move fast, according to Krista Hampton, director of planning and development for Columbia.
Duvall, a former director of the Municipal Association of S.C., calls the state’s rules the most restrictive in the country. This has been intentional by the Legislature to keep the powers of municipalities restricted, he said.
For areas larger than a couple of homes, the most likely of several possible methods under state law is called the "75% petition." A petition drive must collect signatures from 75 percent of the “freeholders,” people or businesses who own at least a one-tenth share of ownership in a property in the area, and those freeholders also must represent 75 percent of the area’s assessed valuation. The petition drive can take six months, and then city council would have to act to accept the result in the ensuing two to three months with an ordinance.
The law was tightened by the Legislature after a series of controversial annexations including Columbia's move on Columbiana Centre, Watts said. It's current wording specifically blocks using a highway, waterway or right-of-way as a connection for annexation.
Some folks have held preliminary discussions about moving forward with annexation but haven’t taken formal actions yet, Livengood said. It’s the role of his office to supply information about the issue for those areas and to help with some of the requirements such as completing a survey of the area.
As the state’s population continues to grow, that will increase long-term pressure for annexation as more people live closer together and see the value of combined services, Watts said.
The state’s tight laws have helped to slow the process, and has made some awkwardly small municipalities, Watts said. He points to the example of the city of Lexington. It’s at the heart of Lexington County but had, according to 2014 Census numbers, a population of just 19,893 within its limits. The population of all Lexington County: 277,888.
“I think you’re going to see annexations continue but at a slow rate,” Watts said.