Citing the passage of a new state law regarding involuntary annexation, the City of Weatherford Tuesday night dropped plans to annex areas in the Zion Hill area next month.
The shift came after weeks of vocal opposition from a large group of Zion Hill and other Parker County residents and days after Hudson Oaks Mayor and county judge candidate Pat Deen met with the city on the group’s behalf.
At the start of a scheduled public hearing on the proposed involuntary annexation Tuesday, city council members met with the city attorney for about an hour before voting to cancel the public hearings.
The crowd of approximately 200, many wearing red T-shirts signaling their opposition to the forced annexation, cheered at the announcement.
By stopping the involuntary annexation process Tuesday, Weatherford will allow Senate Bill 6, signed into law by the governor on Aug. 15, to take effect before any more annexations occur.
Though the proposed law initially only applied to cities with populations of at least 500,000, Parker County’s Rep. Phil King added an amendment that would allow residents of Parker County and similar counties to opt-in to the law’s protections against forced annexations.
If enough Parker County residents sign a petition to call an election to opt-in and voters approve, Weatherford will be required to allow county residents impacted by annexations to vote on inclusion.
Deen met with city officials on Friday after obtaining permission from the Stop Zion Hill Annexation association and after making sure nobody else was negotiating with the city on their behalf.
“Basically what we did was, we sat down and we looked at what their long range plan was,” Deen said. “At that point what we did was looked at how SB 6 was going to affect them in the future. And the options for them were: annex this in and have relationship issues for years to come and not be able to do what they wanted to do, which was go beyond the Zion Hill area.”
By allowing impacted Zion Hill residents to have a say on coming into the city, Weatherford opted to step back and repair the relationship and attempt to partner with them in the future, Deen said.
Weatherford has some common goals with its ETJ residents in controlling future growth in the area, such as restricting a hypothetical fertilizer plant, according to Deen.
“What we talked about was really, ‘You can ruin those relationships now and be years to war because these people are very passionate about their property. And so, step back and look at this and reset the clock, allow them to have a say and then get what you want down the road or never get what you want down the road because SB 6 will never let you have what you want if you outrage those people forever,’” Deen said.
City staff had four or five days of discussion before recommending the city council abort the annexation process, Mayor Craig Swancy told the Democrat.
“When they came out with Senate Bill 6 it never would have allowed us to fulfill our plan,” Swancy said. “Senate Bill 6 just closes it all up.... You want to grow up? Well, Senate Bill 6 says you can’t.”
Though the city could have completed that particular involuntary annexation, the city would have achieved just one piece of its larger growth plan within the city’s ETJ, according to city spokesman Blake Rexroat.
If enough Parker County residents by county-wide petition and vote require Weatherford under the new law to run annexations by those it annexes, future annexations would be impossible without support from impacted ETJ residents.
“The intent for the annexation was and always has been to manage growth and plan for things such as water,” Swancy said in a statement read following an approximately hour-long, closed-door discussion with the city’s attorney.
The city feels Senate Bill 6 will burden the city’s future by restricting its ability to prepare for the growth that is coming, according to Swancy.
“It is unfortunate that the annexation process has become politically driven,” Swancy said. “We have removed every residence that state law would allow us and offered every agricultural property an exemption for up to 45 years. There has been no desire from state or county leaders to engage in conversation about this process and many details have been misconstrued. Even as we gather together this evening, there are those working to divide us and pull us further apart. And for what? A vote?”
“I think we’re excited,” Laura Hester, president of Stop Zion Hill Annexation, said after the meeting. “I mean, we fought so hard.”
Hester said the group is glad the city dropped its plan to annex the area next month.
“I’m a little concerned with what they might do in the future,” Hester said. “Will they try to sneak this in again before SB 6 takes effect? I don’t think they want any more of this because we’re still ready to fight. Now we’re just gearing up for petition signing.”
Hester said Zion Hill residents have collected about 100 signatures so far and hope to collect around 10,000 in coming months to force an election in November 2018 on opting in to Senate Bill 6 restrictions.
Hester said the group will be posting updates on the group’s Facebook page, Stop Zion Hill Annexation, about where signatures will be collected.
Though several Zion Hill area residents acknowledged the city’s efforts were a step in the right direction in repairing the neighbors’ relationship, some wondered if they could trust the city or said they felt Swancy’s statement on behalf of the city did little to acknowledge that the community felt disrespected and bullied by Weatherford in recent weeks.
Parker County Judge Mark Riley, who is running for re-election against Deen, made a short appearance at the city council meeting Tuesday in support of Stop Zion Hill Annexation.
On Wednesday, he posted a statement on Facebook calling Weatherford City Council’s decision the right one and commending Phil King for the amendment.