Major Kentucky Supreme Court Victory for City Annexations
On March 20, 2014, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued its opinion in Lebanon v. Goodin, regarding the legality of the city’s actions in pursuing a nonconsensual annexation. In a 6-1 decision, the Court upheld the annexation and provided vital guidance that supports the growth of Kentucky cities. To read the full Supreme Court opinion, go here.
This monumental Supreme Court decision reversed the opinion of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which had ruled that Lebanon's annexation was invalid because boundaries of annexed territory must be “natural or regular” to meet the contiguity requirement of KRS 81A.410. The Court of Appeals said the boundaries were not natural or regular because the city assessed which property owners supported annexation and drew the boundary lines of the new territory to attempt to include enough supportive property owners to ensure a successful annexation.
The Kentucky Supreme Court disagreed, holding that state law requires annexed territory to be “adjacent or contiguous” to the city, but does not require annexation boundaries to be “natural or regular.” The Court took the opportunity to further interpret the meaning of “adjacent or contiguous,” specifically holding that KRS 81A.410 allows a city to “annex territory that is either nearby, e.g., perhaps separated by a roadway or river, or touching the boundary of the city.” Any attempt to add a standard requiring boundaries to be natural or regular, the Court held, misapplies current state law, because there is no support for “the notion that shape is a critical factor under Kentucky law in determining the validity of annexations.”
The Court also refused to delve into the motives of the city officials in accomplishing the annexation, reiterating that annexation is a political act within the exclusive control of the legislature, and that “a city’s supposed knowledge of an annexation’s potential success must be seen as mere speculation or conjecture.” Furthermore, the Court held that courts should refrain from relying heavily on depositions of city officials to determine motives, because “a city speaks through its ordinances… Instead, the focus should be on the result of the proper legislative action and whether or not there was a rational connection between the actions taken and the supporting evidence.”
In this case, the Court held, Lebanon properly found the territory suitable for annexation in accordance with Kentucky law. Therefore, the annexation was valid, and the actions taken by the city were not unconstitutionally arbitrary.
This is an extremely important victory for cities across the state. It is now settled that the shape of annexed territory will not invalidate a nonconsensual annexation, as long as the territory is reasonably near or touching the boundary of the city and otherwise meets the requirements of KRS Chapter 81A. Additionally, as long as there is a rational basis for city officials’ decisions regarding an annexation, officials can proceed with the important business of expanding their boundaries without improper speculation into their motives. Ultimately, this decision protects the integrity of the annexation process, as well as the integrity of separation of powers so central to our government system.
KLC is proud to have contributed to this victory through the KLC Legal Advocacy Program by submitting an amicus curiae brief, which advocated for many of the holdings adopted by the Court.
The KLC Legal Advocacy Program represents the collective legal interests of KLC's member cities in the courts throughout the Commonwealth. As apparent in this case, much of the law affecting municipal government in Kentucky is shaped and made in the courts.
KLC will intervene as amicus curiae or otherwise assist municipal counsel with the preparation of a city's case-in-chief where KLC's participation is likely to positively advance cities' collective legal interests by establishing legal precedent that will help cities more effectively serve their citizens. In the past five years, KLC has participated in or assisted with at least 10 cases, and notably helped with important victories for cities regarding legislative prayer, open records exemptions, and the charter county government process.
Any member city or agency may make a request to the KLC for intervention or assistance. For more information about this program or the latest cases in which KLC has participated, please contact Laura Ross, Managing Counsel for Member Legal Services, at 800-876-4552.