Belton City Council

BELTON — It’s time to rethink growth.

Belton’s recent annexation of 120 acres may mark the last time in the foreseeable future the city uses involuntary annexation.

As Bell County residents seek to end what they describe as “forced” annexation here, the Belton City Council is looking for new ways to grow their burgeoning city.

“It occurred to me ... (that) if you can’t force annexation, you’re going to have to get innovative and creative,” Councilman Paul Sanderford said at the City Council meeting this week. “That’s right isn’t it? When government can take something by force, that’s what they usually do.”

Belton has an opportunity right now to blaze the trail and find new solutions to managing its growth, the councilman explained. An example of that Sanderford pointed to was the City Council’s conversation on using non-annexation development agreements in a more proactive and creative way to ensure as many non-Beltonians have a seat at the table to discuss growth.

Councilman David K. Leigh wants the city to be more enterprising and educate residents who live in Belton extraterritorial jurisdiction, the unincorporated area within one mile of the county seat’s city limits.

Councilman John Holmes agrees.

“I think if the city can use the development agreements in a proactive way prior to announcing annexation that would reduce a lot of the stress and angst associated with that,” the freshman councilman said on Tuesday. “I think that would really help slow the process down.”

Holmes, Sanderford and Councilman Guy O’Banion said Belton’s annexation effort was rushed.

When compared to the 2016 annexation process, the city of Belton chopped a month off this year’s deliberations. It’s critical in the future that Belton gives potential residents time to understand annexation and sign development agreements if they are eligible, Holmes said.

Additionally, the City Council will need to embrace voluntary annexation, Sanderford said.

“That’s regardless if the new law takes effect in this county or not,” he said. “I just think that’s the better path forward.”

Annexation’s end may be nigh

Anti-annexation advocate Amy Cook is leading a group of Bell County residents to collect 20,000 signatures to opt into Senate Bill 6, the law that requires cities in counties with a population of more than 500,000 to seek the consent of property owners before annexation. The law took effect Friday.

The group will have until mid-August to collect their signatures. If successful, the Bell County Commissioners Court will call for the measure to be placed on the November 2018 ballot.

“When they bring that (the petition) to us, we would put it on the ballot,” Commissioner Russell Schneider said on Oct. 26.

The anti-annexation residents, who were brought together because of Belton’s annexation attempt, face a difficult road ahead. Residents, however, are undeterred. They will begin seeking signatures next week.

City Manager Sam Listi said it is unclear how annexation will change in Belton, Bell County or Texas.

If the anti-annexation effort is successful, several officials in Bell County have said it will be the end of annexation.

But, as Sanderford pointed out, the effort may fail, keeping the status quo.

“If they don’t pass the law, we’re right back with this tool of forced annexation and we can do it that way,” he said.

New approach to growth

Planning and infrastructure decisions are based on a variety of factors, the city manager said.

“Pending growth, development, local policies, and the Texas Legislature each have an influence, as was seen with the recent annexation process here in Belton,” Listi said. “As policymakers, the Belton City Council has the most critical role with regard to planning and infrastructure investment, providing direction and final decisions that impact growth.”

Moving past this year’s annexation, Holmes would like for the city of Belton to look at the sprawling chunks of land near Interstates 14 and 35. These areas may be important for the city’s infrastructure and development, he said.

However, Holmes added he would want to see Belton work with property owners to find out if they want to be annexed.

“If those folks don’t want to be annexed, entering into a development agreement — if they want to stay (out of city limits) — works out real well,” he said. “If things around them start moving or growth starts happening a little bit faster and there’s an opportunity for them to develop their property then that agreement works real well for both parties.”

Development agreements are an “extremely important development tool,” Listi said. Belton’s recent annexation study, the city manager explained, prove that because the agreements helped the City Council to annex a more focused 120.27 acres.

“This result provides a meaningful planning opportunity to help guide Belton’s future growth on these properties that remain outside the city,” Listi said.

While Cook opposed what she calls “Belton’s land grab,” she said the approach Holmes suggested would be a better way for cities to project growth. Cook would add one more thing to it: a committee comprised of Beltonians and Belton extraterritorial jurisdiction residents who can advise the City Council on how to guide the municipality’s growth.

“You always have a better result when you have more diverse voices,” she said, adding it would be better for cities and county residents to have an advisory relationship rather than an adversarial relationship.

Big city, big dreams?

It cannot be denied: Belton is growing.

The city has grown by 16.5 percent since 2010. Belton’s population is currently pegged at 21,214 people.

By 2020, the county seat is projected to have between 22,700 and 26,200 residents, according to Belton’s comprehensive plan.

Belton anticipates it will either triple or quadruple its population by 2075. Population estimates show the city having somewhere between 65,000 and 81,000 people. To put that in perspective, Temple is currently in that range.

While Cook recognizes Belton is growing, she posed a question to city officials to think about their vision of this Central Texas town.

“Do you really want to be Austin, Houston or Dallas?” she asked.