An outline of how county is organized

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At last week’s meeting of the Surry County Board of Commissioners, a matter being discussed brought back up a topic from last year: ETJ.

ETJ means extraterritorial jurisdiction. For some of the folks who appeared before the county officials last year, it was more of a four-letter word than three letters.

The late Rawley King and J.T. Henson spoke to the county board at a January 2019 meeting.

“The city has jurisdiction over 7,000 to 8,000 people who live in a no man’s land with no direct representation,” said Henson. “City officials are not accountable to ETJ residents via the ballot box.”

People who live in that one-mile boundary have to get permits from the city and are affected by decisions made by the city like water and sewer rates, said King. And yet, folks like him can’t vote in city elections.

When the ETJ was established, forced annexation was still allowed, said King. Now that such annexation isn’t allowed, he feels the ETJ is useless.

Well, here is where it helps to be old. I started at The News in 1995. After a fellow reporter left a year later, I began covering meetings of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.

King, Henson, the entire county board: none of these folks were at those meetings when the city staff first brought up the idea of an ETJ. But I was.

Several times last year during the arguments for and against an ETJ, the term forced annexation came up. You know where it didn’t come up? At the workshops I attended where the city planned for an ETJ.

That’s right, all this talk about abolishing the ETJ because the city can’t do forced annexations? The city staff wasn’t pushing for that in the first place.

In fact, the way annexation came up is that if the city did its job of planning out growth, people would come to the city asking to join.

The phrase that did come up often was “urban sprawl.” The city planning board explained that some cities have a plan for how growth should occur outward, and some don’t. No planning can lead to random areas of development spread around an area with poor definition between commercial and residential usage.

The sprawl part also refers to how sometimes growth is spread out and makes it hard to offer city services easily such as fire and police protection and garbage service.

Another part that was mentioned was that some residents feel like buildings and construction just outside the city limits hurt their property values. If the city had some control over what could happen right up against its borders, then landowners could be protected.

And let’s face it, there is a big difference between living in a city and living out in a rural county.

I was at a meeting once 22-23 years ago where a city committee was debating the exact height grass could be before it was too high and should be against city regulation. If the grass is too high, then the property itself could be a public health hazard because of the risk of vermin and snakes that pursue vermin, the committee members said.

Cities have rules related to garbage pickup and dogs on leashes — some places have rules on dog poop pickup.

If folks live in close proximity to each other, some considerations have to be made. Remember, one of the pillars of our legal system is that I have all kinds of freedom — right up until they infringe on your freedoms.

Having a party is legal, but if the noise from the party upsets your neighbors, then you’ve infringed on their right to not be disturbed.

I live out in the county and happen to like it that way.

I have four neighbors with target shooting ranges within half a mile of my house. On pretty days, it can get a little noisy outside. I have a neighbor with roosters that don’t know when to quit crowing. Another neighbor likes to have get-togethers (social distancing be damned).

I don’t mind. Live and let live.

One day I visiting a neighbor when he mentioned that he could hear me the day before wailing away on my electric guitar all the way over at his house.

I started to cringe and apologize, but he shrugged and said, “Sounded pretty good.” And that was that.

———

One thing that bugged me last year was that we don’t really know how the masses felt about abolishing the ETJ.

As a reporter, I just tell the facts. I report the news, not make it, so I didn’t question the process.

Still, it surprised me that the issue didn’t come to a vote. Why not put the question on the ballot for folks in the city limits and those in voting districts within the ETJ?

Even in a non-presidential year when turnout may only be a quarter or a third of the population, that’s still a better indication of how people truly feel than just letting a dozen or two dozen disgruntled folks speak out.

Did they really speak for the many? Or was it a case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease?

Commissioner Eddie Harris brought up an interesting point last week when he pointed out that there were three residents complaining about a neighbor’s nuisance property. No county ordinance applies to the place in question, but if the ETJ were still in place, then the codes enforcement officer could go check out the site and see if the city’s stricter regulations were being violated.

Instead, the neighbors may be forced to pursue a lawsuit against the property as a public nuisance, which they could lose.

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