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OC Fire District Plan Sparks Annexation Debate

By Elizabeth Friend Posted February 22, 2013 at 3:02 pm
CHAPEL HILL -A plan to redraw the fire insurance districts south of Chapel Hill sparked a heated debate about annexation between town and county officials.As he kicked off Tuesday’s discussion on creating new fire districts, Assistant County Manager Mike Talbert reminded the Orange County Commissioners, “This has absolutely nothing to do with fire protection, and everything to do with fire insurance.”

But the ninety minute debate also touched on annexation, tax equity, and the future of the town and county’s joint planning areas, as Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt made clear in a speech to the board.

“Under this new annexation paradigm that we’ve been given by the North Carolina legislature, we can think about how we rationally plan our future together, because these tools that created this map are no longer usable,” said Kleinschmidt. “The concept of the [extra-territorial jurisdiction] and that urban or Orange County citizens who live in Chapel Hill should continue to pay for services into the unincorporated areas-that’s no longer workable. Because that area will no longer become part of the town of Chapel Hill. We know that.”

At issue are a handful of homeowners south of Chapel Hill who have seen their fire insurance rates skyrocket now that insurance companies are using GPS to pinpoint their exact distance from fire stations. Under the new rules, those more than six miles away are subject to higher rates, even if the actual fire protection agreements haven’t changed.

The county’s solution was to ask Chapel Hill to extend it’s fire district to include these homes and levy a tax of 15 cents per $100 to cover the cost, or failing that, to ask Carrboro.

The Chapel Hill Town Council first voted against the plan in favor of annexing the neighborhoods north of Mt Carmel Church Road.

But last week the council backtracked, approving a two year contract to cover the homes, after it became clear that recent changes to state law make it impractical to annex the neighborhoods.

On Tuesday however, commissioners argued they want a five year contract that gives the town the chance to opt out annually.

“What I do not want to see us do, is get in a situation where we come back in two years and do the same dance again, “said Commissioner Earl McKee. “I think that if we’re going to make another attempt to work with Chapel Hill on this, it has to be a five year contract, because there is the one-year out.”

Kleinschmidt responded that the town council only approved a two year contract, and would need to reconsider a longer commitment.

Further more, he said it’s time the towns and county revisit the question of what to do with land in the town’s extra-territorial jurisdiction.

Much of that land was slated for eventual annexation by Chapel Hill, but lingers in limbo since the general assembly changed the rules to preempt town-initiated annexation. Now, either 100 percent of residents in the affected area must petition the town, or a majority must approve the annexation in a referendum.

Commissioner Mark Dorosin said he’d welcome the chance to revisit the matter of the extra-territorial jurisdictions, or ETJs.

“I think these folks should be annexed, I think they live in Chapel Hill and they should be part of that,” said Dorosin. “But I don’t put all the blame on them, they’ve been in the ETJ for 20 years. Chapel Hill had a long time to annex them and didn’t. To the mayor’s point, about ETJs as a planning tool that allows growth, it has been abused by a lot of towns and they’ve kept areas in their ETJs for decades.”

The board voted unanimously to send a proposal to the town council for a five year contract to extend the Greater Chapel Hill Fire District, as well as an agreement to begin discussion on long-term land planning.
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