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Voices. Knowledge. Solutions.

Closing Municipal Enclaves Would Improve Services

By Scott Slatton, Director of Advocacy and Communications, Municipal Association of SC

As a city official, have you ever been quizzed by a resident about a property-related issue that they think is your city’s responsibility? And when the resident told you where the property was located, did you have to tell them that property is located outside the city, perhaps even in an enclave? The resident was likely surprised to learn this, since areas that look like a city or town in South Carolina often aren’t actually in a municipality, because of the state’s restrictive annexation laws. In fact, the state’s annexation laws are among the most restrictive in the country. 

There are three primary methods of municipal annexation in South Carolina law: 100% petition, 75% petition and 25% petition/election. Before an area outside of a city is annexed, all three methods require two things. First, the property must touch the existing city limits. Second, a minimum 51% of the property owners or eligible electors must agree to be annexed. Because of misperceptions about annexation among property owners, they often don’t seek to be annexed into a municipality. As a result, cities and towns don’t grow naturally as development occurs at their borders. This in turn leads to confusion among residents about who’s responsible for delivering municipal services. Reform of South Carolina’s annexation laws to allow cities and towns to grow with the development adjacent to their borders would alleviate confusion and allow for more efficient and cost-effective services.

The 2020 U.S. Census showed that South Carolina’s total population grew by more than 10% since 2010. Some cities and towns in the state grew by even larger numbers, depending on where they’re located and whether or not the developers in the area needed municipal services like water and sewer. While that growth in certain parts of the state is helpful to some, not all cities and towns have grown their borders as one would expect. Special purpose districts that provide services dissuade new growth areas from annexing into a city. Some counties that provide many governmental services dissuade annexation. This disjointed method for providing services stunts municipal growth and leads to confusion among residents and property owners.

One small solution to South Carolina’s annexation confusion would be to allow cities and towns to close enclaves within their borders. Commonly known as “doughnut holes,” these unincorporated areas are completely surrounded by a city or town. Enclaves present many challenges to local governments and their residents alike. County officials have to travel through a municipality in order to deliver their services. Police and fire services can be delayed while officials determine whether the city or the county should respond. Residents of enclaves often don’t understand why they aren’t allowed to vote for mayor or council. 

The Municipal Association of SC has long advocated for a change in state law that would allow municipal councils to annex enclaves by ordinance — improving efficiency and ensuring all residents share responsibility for funding municipal services. 

Annexation in South Carolina is complicated, arcane and difficult. That’s why reforming the state’s annexation laws is needed in order to allow all cities and towns to grow as their communities grow.

Allowing enclave annexation is one of the Municipal Association’s 2021 – 2022 Advocacy Initiatives