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City attorneys waiting for next move on Anniston deannexation

Leaving Anniston

Motorists heading out of Anniston on Tuesday. City attorneys in Anniston and Oxford say they're waiting for formal action before dealing with a proposal by some Anniston residents to have a large swath of the city redrawn into Oxford.

Attorneys for the cities of Anniston and Oxford aren’t girding up to fight a proposed bill that would transplant Anniston’s Ward 4 into Oxford — not yet, at least. 

Anniston resident Charles Turner said Wednesday that he drafted a bill that asks the state Legislature to chop Ward 4 — which includes Golden Springs and some of Anniston’s east side, with more than 9,000 of Anniston’s estimated 22,000 residents — out of the city, while absorbing it into Oxford in the same motion. Turner is among a handful of Golden Springs residents who founded Forward 4 All last week, a group advocating the shuffle, he said, to improve property values. 

An official version of the bill is being drafted by the Alabama Legislative Services Agency at the request of Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the senator said Tuesday. Until that arrives, though, local municipal attorneys have only what is included in Turner’s draft copy, mostly made up of area descriptions for land to be deannexed. 

Anniston city Attorney Bruce Downey said Thursday that he’s waiting until official legislation appears before investigating measures to block it. He has yet to be asked by city officials to investigate such avenues, he explained. 

“It’s just an idea at this point,” Downey said. “My instincts are that there is probably a plethora of legal concerns that would serve as obstacles.” 

Oxford city Attorney Ron Allen said he hadn’t yet researched ways to block such legislation. He’ll start if the City Council asks, he explained. He said that request would be made during a public meeting, which the council has yet to have since the proposed annexation became public. 

Downey listed a few possible hooks from which to hang opposing litigation — the U.S. Voting Rights Act, for instance, which might be violated by making such drastic changes to a city’s voting population, or Lee v. Macon, a 1963 federal lawsuit which helped end racial segregation in many state school districts — but he noted that until there was a pressing concern of legitimate legislative action, he was unlikely to dive into law books on those subjects.

“If it’s going to become a bill, and I don’t know if it is or not, but if it’s going to be introduced or considered then I imagine I will spend some time looking into those issues,” Downey said. “We can’t spend time running down everybody’s ideas.”

Some residents, including Anniston and Oxford city leaders, would rather the move not happen. In a post shared on the city’s Facebook page Wednesday, Mayor Alton Craft assured the people of Oxford that he opposed the scrambling of city limits discussed online and in local media. He wrote that the city should grow, but only after tending to practical considerations. 

“Any future growth of Oxford needs to be done with due diligence; this includes lengthy studies and discussions with our department heads, city council, and all other parties involved,” Craft wrote. 

But Turner’s proposed legislation before the two cities doesn’t ask for due diligence. The method the draft bill envisions — a local act of the Legislature — involves no approval by either municipality. Annexation by local act isn’t rare in itself — Jacksonville went that route in expanding its borders in 2016 to include previously unincorporated territory, which drew ire from some residents in public hearings — but it’s generally done at the request of a city, not in spite of complaints. Examples on a scale like that proposed with Ward 4 are difficult to come across, if they exist. 

“I haven’t heard of it happening,” said Lori Lein, general counsel for the Alabama League of Municipalities. The organization was founded in 1935 and comprises nearly 450 cities, according to its website.

Lein declined to speak in specifics about the flip-flopping of Ward 4 because both Anniston and Oxford are league members. She did confirm that the Legislature has the authority to make such changes by state law, and the law contains no provisions for the size or population of the territory being cut or absorbed. 

League literature sent by Lein states that section 104(18) of the Alabama Constitution of 1901 allows the Legislature the right to annex property without the consent of municipal government or property owners.

“If you are a part of a municipality and you want to deannex, you have to get the city’s permission to do it,” Lein said. “If the city doesn’t want to do it, you can’t make them do it, unless you annex by a local act of the state Legislature.”

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.