In a previous blog, I mentioned that Jackson officials had attempted to enlarge their city limits by spreading tentacles along Highway 61 and Interstate 55 toward Fruitland.
I actually could have used harsher language. This kind of illegal annexation has been denounced in courtrooms across the country as gerrymandering, cherry picking, crazy quilt, municipal chaos, and my favorite phrase, archipelagic monstrosity.
Missouri law is very clear that voluntary annexations must be "contiguous and compact." The courts have not been shy in condemning annexations that don't meet the requirements of the law.
Jackson did not lose its annexation case because of a "technicality." Jackson lost because city officials tried to take a dagger to the very heart of Missouri's annexation statutes.
Back to 1953
City officials throughout Missouri probably wish they could take a time machine back to 1953. That was the year that the Missouri legislature took the first steps at making it harder for cities to annex unincorporated land.
Prior to 1953, it was easy for cities to expand as much as they wanted. They merely had to adopt an ordinance and hold an election in which only city residents could vote. Landowners of the areas to be annexed were almost completely shut out of the process. They could try to challenge the cities in court, but judges gave wide latitude to city governments.
The unchecked growth of cities, especially in St. Louis County, prompted the legislature to take action by passing the "Sawyer Act" in 1953. This new statute required that most cities obtain a declaratory judgment from a circuit court before proceeding with the annexation. Cities had a greater burden to show that their annexation plans were reasonable.
In response to the new law, the courts tended to be less friendly to city governments. For example, in 1982, an attempt by Cape Girardeau to annex 4,350 acres was rejected by the Missouri Court of Appeals. The court noted that a portion of the area to be annexed was far-flung from the existing city, connected only by a 1,000-foot wide corridor. Expert testimony revealed that it would be difficult to provide municipal services to the annexed areas, a key reason why the court concluded that "the proposed annexations were arbitrary legislative acts and must be denied."
Voluntary annexations not always completely voluntary
A downside of the Sawyer Act was that it clogged court dockets. In 1976, the legislature added a new law (§ 71.012) that allowed landowners to voluntarily petition for annexation without going through the courts.
While annexed land had to be connected to the existing city limits, clever officials soon realized that they could employ a divide-and-conquer strategy. By working with friendly landowners to annex convenient parcels, the city could surround land held by reluctant or hostile owners, who would find it increasingly difficult to resist the city's advances.
In 1986, the legislature enacted a major change to the law, requiring that voluntary annexations must be "contiguous and compact." This change has been pivotal in several court rulings.
In the 1990 case Martee v. City of Kennett, a landowner objected to the city annexing all of the surrounding territory, leaving his property as an island. The Missouri appeals court discussed the new law, finding that the "addition of the requirement of 'compact' must be regarded as significant." The court explained, "The essence of the plaintiff's complaint is that the boundaries of the area purportedly annexed were improperly 'gerrymandered' to attempt to deny him standing as an owner to complain that area was not subject to voluntary annexation under § 71.012."
"Even though the plaintiff's property was not purportedly annexed, he has an interest in the action of the City in enveloping his property within its corporate limits," the ruling continued. "The result alters the status of his property in respect to a possible future annexation. Moreover, the policy of the statute is obviously to permit voluntary annexation only upon consent of all fee owners in a contiguous and compact area. The statute was adopted for the benefit of the property owners in a contiguous and compact unincorporated area."
Watch out for "archipelagic monstrosity"
Curiously, the court's decision referenced a 1978 case from Tenneessee in which the state supreme court objected to the creation of un-annexed enclaves within a city. The Tennessee court said, "The result of this would tend to create islands of unincorporated areas within a city and the archipelagic monstrosity thus created would thwart the rendition of essential city services and would not be in the public interest."
In another Missouri appeals court case, Reed v. City of Union (1995), the precedent from the Martee case was used to reject another annexation attempt. The court explained, "The annexation does not make the city's boundaries more regular nor would the city and the annexed area be one compact solid tract of land. See Martee, supra. The annexation would result in plaintiff's property being surrounded by the city on three sides, creating a peninsula of plaintiff's land and creating the type of 'enclave' or 'archipelagic monstrosity' referred to in Martee as unreasonable."
The following year, in City of Pacific v. Metro Development Corp., the court referenced the Tennessee case and then concluded, "The reductio ad absurdum of respondent's practice is unthinkable fragmentation and municipal chaos, consequences which we find unacceptable."
Even though "archipelagic monstrosity" was coined in Tennessee, the phrase has certainly found a home in the Missouri court system. I rather hope the phrase "municipal chaos" will appear in future cases as well.
Wentzville's flag is lowered
In 1995, the legislature tinkered with the law again, specifically prohibiting voluntary annexations that are connected to the rest of the city by only a narrow strip of property less than a quarter mile wide. This was an important point in several additional cases in which non-compact annexations were rejected: Missouri Rural Electric Cooperative v. City of Hannibal (1997), Dodson v. City of Wentzville (2007), and Curtis v. City of Hillsboro (2008).
In the Wentzville case, the court compared the city's annexation scheme to a flagpole: "As in Reed, we conclude here that the attempted annexation does not meet the test of compactness. In this case the City attempted what is commonly referred to as a 'flag annexation,' whereby a long, narrow strip of land is utilized to connect the boundaries of the annexing municipality with the larger tract it seeks to annex. It is called a flag annexation because the tracts to be annexed, if viewed from an aerial perspective, resemble a flag, with the long narrow strip of land being the flagpole, and the larger parcel, the flag."
Wentzville tried to argue that flag annexations are common practice in Missouri, but this was shot down: "If we were to allow a city's comprehensive plan and its own custom and practices to determine whether the requirement of compactness had been met, each city might become final arbiter of whether a tract was contiguous and compact by altering its comprehensive plan and modifying its custom and practices." The court continued, "In making this judgment, our polestar is the legislature's intent, not the custom and practice of various cities that find their powers of annexation restricted by the legislature's limitations."
The Perry County exception -- or is it?
In the past, Missouri law allowed cities to annex up to two miles along a highway. That provision was removed in 1995, but somehow Perry County was able to obtain an exception in 1996. In typical obfuscated fashion, the law said, "Notwithstanding the provisions of this section, the governing body of any city, town or village in any county of the third classification which borders a county of the fourth classification, a county of the second classification and Mississippi River may annex areas along a road or highway up to two miles from existing boundaries of the city, town or village..."
(The law also provided a one-shot exception so that Moberly in Randolph County could annex a prison.)
Despite only applying to Perry County, it appears that Jackson officials thought the law allowed them to annex up to two miles along US 61 and I-55. When Fruitland residents challenged Jackson's annexation, the city's attorney tried to argue that the exception for Perry County violated the constitution, and that all counties, including Cape Girardeau County, should enjoy the same treatment.
As we've seen with the recent attempt to make an exception for quarries in Cape Girardeau County only, these kinds of special cases are obnoxious. However, the judge didn't accept Jackson's argument that the annexation statute is unconstitutional.
In a delightful twist, it appears that the Perry County exception is no longer in effect anyway. According to the 2013 map from the Missouri Association of Counties, Perry County no longer borders any second-class or fourth-class counties as stipulated by the statute. Indeed, I suspect that the "county of the second classification" was supposed to be Cape Girardeau County, but that hasn't been the case since the county graduated to first-class status on Jan. 1, 1997.
Putting it all together
When Jackson annexed US 61 and I-55, the city ignored two aspects of Missouri law. First, cities are not allowed to voluntarily annex narrow strips of property less than a quarter mile wide. Second, the annexation, which skipped across a sizable area of unincorporated territory between the highways, was clearly not compact.
The purpose of the law is to prevent "municipal chaos" by requiring orderly growth, and to protect the interests of nearby landowners who might find themselves surrounded by city limit signs.
An old legal saying goes, "If the facts are against you, you should hammer the law; if the law is against you, you should hammer the facts; and if both are against you, you should hammer on the table."
The facts and law are both squarely against Jackson, which is why city officials and ardent supporters of the annexation have resorted to hammering the table. Jackson lost the case, and rightfully so.