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Springfield annexation measure surprises neighboring city officials

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The process of annexing land into Springfield city limits may soon look very different if legislation proposed by Missouri Sen. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, is adopted by the state General Assembly.

Introduced Jan. 1, Senate Bill 979 would allow Springfield City Council to annex an area within 6 miles of the current city limits if all property owners within the area submit a signed petition.

If passed, the legislation would no longer require that annexed land be compact and contiguous, two guiding principles of annexation outlined in a section of Missouri Revised Code last updated in 2018. The descriptor compact suggests tidiness – a parcel that is organized without appendages sprawling in all directions. Contiguous is more straightforward; an unincorporated parcel is contiguous if it’s touching the existing limits.

In the legislation’s present form, the city can annex islands of land that are not connected to the city, and they can be as far as 6 miles away from the existing city limits.

Trent admitted it’s a bold step, and opinions about it will vary, but he said current annexation law is arbitrary.

“Any time you have an arbitrary rule set by government, it impedes the choices of individuals on where they want to invest, build a home, build a business,” he said. “I would rather individuals make those decisions in a free market.”

Discarded guidelines
In the past, council members have upheld the factors of compactness and contiguity. At a 2021 council luncheon meeting, Councilmember Craig Hosmer pointed to a map of the city and singled out Zone 3, which has multiple flagpole annexations. A flagpole annexation provides contiguity by annexing a parcel and the road that connects it to the city, creating a flagpole appearance with a skinny neck of land leading to a larger property mass.

“How is that compact and contiguous?” Hosmer asked at the time.

In a 2022 story explaining the Forward SGF comprehensive plan and its approach to annexation, Randall Whitman, the city’s principal planner, said that to reach a desirable parcel, the city might have to annex land between it and the city to ensure that the annexation is contiguous.

“If it’s a large parcel that has development potential that can create jobs and revenue and we can’t get to it, well, we can get to it if we annex another piece to get to that strategic property,” he said.

Under SB 979, the city could jump to the chase and annex only the desirable area, skipping over the less desirable land that separates it from the city and creating a section of the city that is an island.

Trent said the existence of flagpole annexations on the current map of the city gives away the loophole that has allowed cities to skirt the compact and contiguous standard.

“Why go through that exercise when you can just say let’s do that organically as the market dictates, rather than having an arbitrary restriction folks try to get around?” he said.

Trent noted parcels to be annexed would have to be within Springfield’s existing urban service area, which has been set through long-established separate intergovernmental contracts between Springfield and each of its bordering cities.

He added that the city would not be extending its service area unreasonably far or along what he called strange, distant arms.

“As it exists right now, it’s fairly natural looking,” he said of the urban service area.

Trent said the measure is currently aimed at areas to the eastern and southeastern parts of the county – specifically areas served by the Hunt Branch Trunk Sewer service area. Work is being done on approximately 9,300 feet of variably sized sewer line in Phase I of an improvement program, according to the city’s website.

Trent called the contiguity issue the main problem that the legislation addresses.

“If a city wants to expand, it has to be compact and contiguous. This eliminates that,” he said. “A city can grow to a part of the county that is growing, rather than being unable to grow to those areas.”

Mixed response
In municipalities adjacent to Springfield, some city leaders, like Nixa Mayor Jarad Giddens, say they are unconcerned about the legislation. Others, like Republic City Administrator David Cameron, are very concerned.

The difference between Nixa and Republic attitudes may be explained partly by topography.

“We’re a little bit different than communities to the east and west and north,” Giddens said. “The land between Springfield and Nixa goes very far downhill and into the river and then back uphill before you get to Nixa. As far as Nixa, we haven’t grown to the river yet. There’s a lot of county stuff between us and Springfield.”

He did acknowledge a nice cafe on Highway CC.

“I don’t see Springfield coming after our Bistro 160 any time soon,” he said.

Over in Republic, things are more intense, with some $150 million in infrastructure investment in areas that would be subject to the legislation.

“When you’re investing $150 million in infrastructure, you’ve got to know the places you’ve targeted to run that infrastructure aren’t all of a sudden going to be a problem – will that be annexed into the city?” Cameron said.

While Trent said the legislation targets the Hunt Branch sewer area, that area is not specifically identified in the senate bill, Cameron said.

“There’s potential in the bill the way it’s drafted to threaten our ability to recover debt exposure,” he said.

He noted Republic is installing sewer lines in the area of the Amazon fulfillment center right now, with Greene County property adjacent to it.

Cameron said what’s in the text of the legislation matters.

“Even if it’s 10 years from now, if it’s just going down (U.S. Route) 60, could it turn around and go 60 towards Republic?” he said. “What someone else grabs at in the future, even when I’m not here – have I done my best to make sure that it’s clear?”

Changes already in the works
Trent said he has been soliciting feedback on the bill and already has planned some changes. One big example is the language allowing annexation up to 6 miles away.

“We will probably limit it to the existing service area of Springfield,” he said. “That will give a higher degree of comfort to some of the surrounding communities.”

He noted the bill is oriented toward economic growth.

“I hope this is something the whole community can feel comfortable with, feel excited about – that it’s positive for our whole area,” he said. “The local economy rises and falls together. This will be healthy not just for Springfield, but for the surrounding communities as well.”

Strafford Mayor Ashley French said she was surprised to learn about the legislation.

“I did get wind about it after it was filed,” she said. “We talked about it as a staff team, and I let our Board of Aldermen know as a heads up.”

French said she wants Strafford to be part of discussions about annexation.

“We’ve worked a long time on boundaries, and we want to make sure we’re at the table,” she said, noting Springfield officials are usually very good about that.

She said agreements are already in place about boundaries.

“It’s taken a lot of work to get those in place. I want to make sure that’s not for naught,” she said.

Will Marrs, a lobbyist for the city of Springfield, drafted the legislation in response to one of council’s legislative priorities: improving the city’s annexation strategy.

Like Trent, he said getting rid of the 6-mile qualifier will be a good revision.

“We’re planning to make some changes,” he said. “We want to talk to all interested parties and make sure everyone’s on the same page. We should all be at the table for this.”

Marrs clarified that the annexation would be voluntary for property owners.

He added conversations are being held with utilities, fire districts and municipalities.

“We want to make sure everyone understands what we’re trying to do and that we’re taking their concerns to heart,” he said.

Springfield Mayor Ken McClure and City Manager Jason Gage did not respond to requests for comment for this story by press time.

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