Involuntary annexation occurs when a municipality forces property owners in unincorporated areas to join the annexing municipality without their consent.
There are only a few states that allow involuntary annexation. Unfortunately, in the past several years, West Virginia has morphed into an involuntary-annexation state; however, this is due to a change in the interpretation of an existing law, rather than the enactment of any new statutes.
There are three methods of annexation: (1) annexation by election; (2) annexation by petition; and (3) annexation by minor boundary adjustment. Annexation by minor boundary adjustment is the only method of annexation that is initiated by an action of the municipality rather than an action of the citizens. That is because a minor boundary adjustment is not a process for annexation at all. A minor boundary adjustment is a means to effect annexation by election or by petition when the territory proposed for annexation is not contiguous with the corporate boundaries of the annexing municipality.
The Legislature amended and re-enacted the laws governing annexation in 2001 to allow for what is known as “shoestring” annexation under the existing minor boundary adjustment code provision.
Contiguity is an essential principle of annexation. The territory proposed for annexation must border the corporate boundaries of the annexing municipality. Therefore, a minor boundary adjustment allows the municipality to adjust its corporate limits to incorporate solely county, state or federal property to join two non-contiguous areas via a right-of-way, street or highway to satisfy the contiguity requirement under the law.
This has been the expressed intent behind shoestring annexation since the late 1800s and the intent behind West Virginia’s adoption of the procedure in 2001. The corporate municipal limits of Houston, Phoenix, Chicago or Los Angeles are perfect examples of shoestring annexation in action.
However, it was never the intent of the Legislature — nor has it been the practice historically in states that allow shoestring annexation — to allow for the involuntarily annexation of large swaths of private property without the consent of the property owners through shoestring annexation.
Such an interpretation of the law comes from a 2017 decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia titled Coffman v. Nicholas County Commission. The Coffman decision infinitely broadened the permissible use of a minor boundary adjustment in a way that renders annexation by election and annexation by petition meaningless. No municipality is ever going to seek the prior approval of a property owners when they see the potential to increase their revenue by increasing their corporate boundaries.
Currently, annexation by a minor boundary adjustment is being used by municipalities as an end-run around the rights of property owners who may oppose annexation because of unpopular municipal policies and the potential for increased taxes. Business owners and residents are being brought into municipalities against their will, with little to no legal recourse to prevent it.
Involuntary annexation is undemocratic. The Legislature must make it a priority to revise the annexation laws to ensure that the due-process rights of property owners are protected against the rapacious tendencies of local government.