Walnut Tree Community Denied Annexation by Walnut Cove Town Commissioners

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On Tuesday, January 10th, the Walnut Cove Town Board of Commissioners denied an annexation petition filed by residents of Walnut Tree, a predominantly African American community adjacent to the majority white town in southeastern Stokes County.  The town board denied Walnut Tree’s petition by a 3-2 vote, with the board’s three white members voting against annexation.

Walnut Tree residents filed their petition under North Carolina’s voluntary annexation statute, which was amended by the General Assembly in 2011 to provide historically excluded, low-wealth communities with greater opportunity to seek annexation into neighboring municipalities.  These excluded communities, where a majority of residents are often African American, are unable to vote in municipal elections and frequently lack equal access to water and sewer, emergency services, and other municipal services.

The Walnut Tree subdivision was developed in the early 1970’s, with mortgages offered by the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) as part of an effort to encourage rural economic development and African American homeownership in the South.  Many of Walnut Tree’s first homeowners previously lived in rental housing within Walnut Cove’s town limits, and moved into their new homes with the understanding that they would soon be included in the municipality.  However, the Walnut Cove town board has denied multiple annexation petitions filed by Walnut Tree residents since the 1990’s.  Meanwhile, the town has annexed several predominantly white areas in the past twenty-five years.

The above map shows the town of Walnut Cove
The above map shows the town of Walnut Cove's municipal boundaries as of the 1990, 2000, and 2010 Censuses. The map also includes racial demographic data as of the 2000 Census.

While Walnut Cove has continually refused to annex Walnut Tree, the town exercises significant power over residents in the community.  Walnut Cove began providing water and sewer service to Walnut Tree in the late 1990’s, after the FmHA suspended lending for new construction in the community because of significant water quality issues.  Today, these water quality concerns remain unresolved despite the fact that Walnut Tree residents pay nearly double the municipal water and sewer rates paid by in-town customers.  Walnut Tree is also within Walnut Cove’s extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ), leaving the community subject to the town’s municipal land use regulations even though residents cannot vote in municipal elections.  In 2015, Walnut Cove’s ETJ power enabled the town board to approve core sample drilling in Walnut Tree, an initial step in determining whether fracking is viable in the area.  Concerned Walnut Tree residents, all the more worried given the community’s proximity to coal ash ponds that serve Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, were left with little recourse as the town board approved the drilling in the neighborhood over their objections.
Walnut Tree’s forty-year struggle against exclusion and environmental injustice highlights the important role that annexation can play in the push for racial equity, by ensuring excluded communities gain access to critical municipal services and the right to vote in municipal elections.  The importance of local political representation led the United States Commission on Civil Rights to conclude in September 2016 that Walnut Tree should be annexed into the town of Walnut Cove.  While North Carolina’s voluntary annexation statute provides a well-defined path for Walnut Tree and other excluded communities to push for a meaningful voice in local politics, it is critical that municipalities recognize annexation frequently touches upon not just financial considerations, but also key political and civil rights concerns.

The residents of Walnut Tree are considering all options in light of the Walnut Cove Town Board of Commissioners’ vote to continue to exclude residents from full and equitable participation in the town.

Posted by Brent J. Ducharme on Wed. January 18, 2017 5:33 PM
Categories: Annexation, Race Discrimination
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