David and Vicky Herron, who live in an unincorporated area near Boerne, attend a hearing on SB 715. Credit: Katie Walsh for the San Antonio Report

Dozens of property owners from unincorporated areas outside of San Antonio squeezed into a public hearing room at the Texas State Capitol on Wednesday morning. Some of them sported bright blue “No Annexation” shirts.

After hearing property owners from across Texas criticize the State’s current annexation policies, the Texas Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations passed The Texas Annexation Reform Act or Senate Bill 715, with a 5-2 vote. The bill was filed by State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and is intended to “protect property owners from involuntary annexation.”

Currently, a city can annex land outside of its limits without obtaining consent from the property owners in the area. SB 715 seeks to make the annexation process more democratic by requiring a majority of the property owners in a given area to consent to the annexation either through an election, if the proposed area has more than 200 residents, or a petition. House bills 424 and 299, also about reforming annexation policies, were left pending in The Texas House Land and Resource Management Committee Wednesday.

The City of San Antonio Government and Public Affairs Director Jeff Coyle said the City opposes SB 715, HB 424, and HB 299. Moving forward, he said the City will continue talking to legislators to make sure they are looking at the big picture. Cities with municipally-determined annexation are healthier, more competitive, and more financially stable, Coyle said, citing a 2016 study from the Texas Municipal League.

“The decision made by the Senate committee was very much a response to the people who came and testified there,” Coyle told the Rivard Report, referring to the dozens of property owners who testified at the hearing. “We think it is an overreaction to rewrite the law just because a group of people aren’t happy about the decision that was made. We still believe that cities need to have the authority to annex unilaterally and we will continue to make that case.”

The bill will go in front of the Texas House of Representatives at a later date. If it passes there, it would mean San Antonio’s recent annexation deal with Converse would be subjected to a public vote before made official, according to Coyle.

The most vocal group included residents of the unincorporated Alamo Ranch community, who loaded into a bus Wednesday morning to attend the hearing. After a recent vote, resident Clay Hadick said 98% of the residents of Alamo Ranch, which is on San Antonio’s Northwest side, want the right to vote on annexation and support SB 715.

“I find annexation without the right to vote a property rights and voting rights issue,” Hadick told the committee. “The Texas Municipal League has said that most cities annex for two reasons: to control development and to expand the city’s tax base. Alamo Ranch is a planned and developed community, so obviously the City wants to help fund their urban core project, which makes us their cash cow… This is obviously about money.”

State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) speaks to property owners, many of whom are from the Alamo Ranch community, after a public hearing Wednesday related to annexation.

At the hearing, Sen. Campbell added that under current law, annexation can be a long, drawn-out process that could last more than two years, with services delayed even longer.

“This is a lengthy and cumbersome process that wastes taxpayer dollars [and] creates situations in which cities may seek out areas for annexation based on boosting their tax base while bypassing poorer areas in desperate need of city services,” Campbell said.

SB 715 would take effect Sept. 1, voiding any annexation plans that have not been completed. That includes the Inter-Local Agreement (ILA), a 17-year planning and annexation agreement signed Tuesday by San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor and Converse Mayor Al Suarez. The agreement conveys $4 billion in taxable property to Converse, including 12 square miles of unincorporated land in Northeastern Bexar County along Interstate 10 near Loop 1604 close to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. The area is home to more than 46,000 residents who will be absorbed into Converse over the next several years.

If the bills pass, elections would have to be held every time an annexation is proposed.

“An election every year would be very harmful to Converse and the annexation plan due to voter apathy,” Suarez said Tuesday. “You’re looking at 5% of the vote making the decision. A lot of people want annexation but don’t get out to vote.”

The military also has an interest in supporting existing annexation policies. San Antonio is seeking to annex a portion of unincorporated land that surrounds Camp Bullis near I-10 West, a move military officials support in order to protect the training site from encroaching development.

Katie Walsh studies journalism and English at the University of Texas at Austin and will graduate in May 2017.