Columbia gets tough on 'doughnut holes'

Pamela Smith owns two rental houses on Farrow Road. Her houses are in the county. But her neighbors are in the city.

That means once a week, county officials send a garbage and recycling truck to her houses, while city trucks circle all around her. And while Columbia Police patrol her street, when someone dials 911 from her house, Richland County sheriff's deputies take the call.

City Council members view this as inefficient, confusing and a waste of money. They want Smith to come into the city. But South Carolina's annexation laws mean Smith has to ask the city to annex her, something Smith does not want to do. She likes her island, and she likes not paying city property taxes.

But the city has a trump card. While they can't force Smith to annex, city officials are not forced to provide her with services such as water and sewer. Now, they've given Smith a choice: either come into the city, or the city cuts off your water.

"These are strong-arm tactics. They have wasted and squandered their money, and now they are trying to find more revenues," Smith said. "I hear they can't even have paid holidays now because they don't even have any money. That's not my fault. It was working for me the way it is. I don't want to be involved with the city."

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Smith's property is one of 2,560 land parcels across the city that officials refer to as "doughnut holes" - county land surrounded by city land.

In September, the city embarked on an aggressive plan - approved by City Council members - to bring all of those parcels into the city. The first phase was to send out letters to 85 property owners, including Smith, who control 66 parcels of land along Farrow Road. Other parts of the city will be next.

The letter asked the Farrow Road property owners to petition the city for annexation by Oct. 5, and included a sentence mentioning that the city was not obligated under the law to provide water service to property not in the city limits.

About 20 percent of the 85 property owners signed the petition. Another 20 percent contacted the city and said they would sign the petition, according to Marc Mylott, Columbia's planning and development services director.

For those who did not sign, the city sent out a second, more strongly worded letter, on Monday. It included this sentence:

"Property owners who elect not to annex upon request may be subject to the termination of these services. In order to avoid further action, please complete the enclosed annexation petition and return it to us by November 6, 2009."

If the property owners don't respond to the second letter, Mylott said, the city will send a third letter, this time by certified mail. After that, City Council members will have to decide what to do.

"That's a policy decision they have to make," Mylott said.


Under South Carolina law, City Council members have three options for annexing property:

- 25 percent of property owners in an area can petition the city, which triggers a special election for the area.

- 75 percent of property owners in an area can petition the city, which automatically brings in the remaining 25 percent.

- 100 percent of property owners in an area can petition the city.

"This is our way of using utilities to get the 100 percent method," Mylott said.

So far, the state court system has upheld cities' right to deny water service for properties not in the city's limits.

In 1911, the state Supreme Court ruled in Childs v. Columbia that a city has "no public duty to furnish water to (a nonresident) at reasonable rates or to furnish it at all."

The court has cited that decision in numerous other cases involving water service, including a 2001 case involving the city of Conway.

More recently, in February, the state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city of Greenville when the city denied water service to a shopping mall because the owner, Janet Robarge, did not want to petition the city for annexation.

If residents were to lose their city of Columbia water service, they would have few options to replace it. Columbia supplies water to the vast majority of county residents; the town of Winnsboro has customers around Blythewood.

While Columbia officials believe the court has given them the authority, they don't want to use water service as a hammer.

"We want people to recognize the benefits of being in the city," Mylott said. "It's not a matter of 'better.' Cities in South Carolina have to be able to reasonably expand their boundaries. And these areas that we are talking about are urban, pure and simple. They are land users that are demanding urban services. And so the provider for those areas ought to be a municipality. Otherwise, you lead to widespread inefficiencies."

Those inefficiencies run both ways, for the county as well as the city.

"You would prefer for those areas to be clearly identified and have just one service provider," Richland County Administrator Milton Pope said. "It certainly is a concern."

But property owners like Smith don't care about inefficiencies. They care about their property taxes. Smith says if she is annexed into the city, she will have to pay city property taxes on top of the county property taxes she already pays.

But Mylott pointed out that Smith's water and sewer bill would be cut in half because city residents receive a discount.

Still, Smith does not see the benefit.

"The thing is it's like you're being forced to do it," she said.

But the city won't force her unless City Council members say "yes." Last year, council members unanimously approved this annexation strategy. But this coming April, three of the seven council members are running for re-election, including Kirkman Finlay, who is running for mayor.

Finlay says he is committed to sticking to the annexation plan.

"If we blink here, there will be no future," Finlay said. "This first one is going to be watched like a hawk. If council issued a warning and is unwilling to fulfill it, everybody going forward knows we're not going to do it, right?"

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who is up for re-election for her at-large council seat, said shutting off someone's water would be a last resort.

"I don't see myself voting to turn off somebody's water because they got three letters that they ignored," she said.

Instead, Devine said council members should meet with property owners to explain why coming into the city would be the best option. However, Devine said the city's water service "is our only recourse."

Mayor Bob Coble, who announced last month he would not seek an unprecedented sixth term as mayor, worried the city's actions could prove costly at the State House. State legislators control much of how city governments operate, and angry property owners could push their state representatives to punish the city.

"We just need to do it very carefully," Coble said.