Mountain Law: City limits: annexations in Colorado
Ryan Summerlin February 26, 2013
If you live in an unincorporated area of a county – i.e. one that is not within the limits of a city or town – you may wonder whether it is possible for a nearby municipality to “annex” your land into it. This article discusses the rules for annexations in Colorado.
Municipal annexation is governed by the Municipal Annexation Act of 1965 and the Colorado Constitution. There are different rules that apply to Denver than other municipalities.
For those land owners who do not want to be annexed, the good news is that municipalities have only a limited ability to unilaterally annex land. This usually involves an “enclave” that has been surrounded by the municipality for more than three years, or land that is owned by the municipality itself.
Rather than being initiated by municipalities, most annexations in Colorado are initiated by land owners themselves who want their land to be included in a municipality. Why would they want that? Most annexations are requested by developers of vacant land because of the need to connect a proposed development to existing municipal services such as water and sewer, and the possibility that the municipality will allow more favorable development (such as more density) than would the county otherwise. Developers essentially “shop around” to determine whether the municipality or the county offers the best conditions for development, and they sometimes pursue annexation accordingly.
As a curb on uncontrolled annexations, Colorado law does not permit municipalities to extend their boundaries more than three miles in any direction in a single year. In addition, all municipalities are required to adopt a three-mile plan generally describing how the municipality will extend services within the area of the plan. The plan must be updated annually. In the event that two or more municipalities claim the same land within their three-mile plans, and each receives a petition for annexation, the matter is put to a vote of the affected landowners.
There are at least three additional requirements for annexations:
1. At least one-sixth of the perimeter of the land to be annexed must be contiguous to the annexing municipality;
2. There must exist a “community of interest” between the area proposed to be annexed and the annexing municipality; and
3. The land proposed for annexation is or will be urbanized and is capable of being integrated into the annexing municipality.
The first requirement for “contiguity” may be established by a series of annexations completed together, and may be achieved using streets, alleys, rights-of-way, lakes, reservoirs, streams or other natural or artificial waterways. However, if streets or alleys are annexed, the entire width of the street or alley must be annexed.
Municipalities sometimes engage in a controversial practice called “flagpole annexation.” Conceptually, this involves annexing a narrow piece of land such as a road – the pole – that is used to connect a larger annexed piece of land – the flag – to the municipality without annexing often less desirable land in between. This procedure can avoid the need to extend services to the land that is not annexed. In response to flag pole annexations, the General Assembly passed a law in 2001 that allows property owners abutting a road used as part of a flagpole annexation the opportunity to be annexed as well on essentially the same terms and conditions as the original annexation.
Annexation can be an important land-use tool intended to ensure orderly growth, centralize municipal services and equitably distribute the costs for services among those who benefit from them. The alternative is often development that outpaces infrastructure and leads to sprawl. Because of the implications for development and government control, battles over the propriety of annexations often rage in the courts.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm, LLC, in Summit County, emphasizing real estate, business and litigation. He may be reached at (970) 468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.