Ending Forced Annexation in Texas: Harris County Annexation War

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Ending Forced Annexation in Texas: Hon. Jess Fields & James Quintero, TPPF, Center for Local Governance (July, 2015)


The Harris County Annexation War

Perhaps the greatest example of how unchecked Texas municipalities’ annexation authority once was is the annexation war that occurred between Houston and smaller cities of south and east Harris County during the postwar period of the mid-20th century. Today, the city of Houston covers 634 square miles, big enough to contain New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Miami.10 But it wasn’t always that way.

From its inception, Houston consistently grew. By 1940, Houston had reached a size of 72.8 square miles. For the sake of comparison, Washington, D.C. comprises only 61.4 square miles.11

Then, concerned about being cut off by suburban towns incorporating around it, Houston decided that it wanted to grow—and fast. It found a leader in Mayor Oscar Holcombe, who took the initiative in growing the city through forced annexations.

But in order to grow the city, Holcombe had to deal with the neighboring cities. The most ambitious of these, arguably, was Pasadena—an industrial community with its own dreams of growing bigger. As the decade of the 1940s wound down, the war between Houston and Pasadena over territorial expansion became steadily more intense. Houston, as it would turn out, had the last laugh in the battle.

The December 31, 1948, issue of the Lubbock Evening Journal, in a story entitled “Houston Annexation Doubles City’s Size,” noted that “Sprawling Houston took a big chunk from outlying areas today, doubling its present size with an annexation of 115 square miles where 111,000 persons reside.”12

The story paraphrased unnamed councilmen saying “… all limits within a 15-mile radius of the heart of downtown Houston would be adjoined to the city proper.”13

The August 20, 1949, issue of the Galveston Daily News, in a story entitled “Race to the Sea,” stated:

One of the most interesting intercity rivalries in Texas today is that between Houston and Pasadena… this particular conflict involved Houston’s apparent attempt to encircle Pasadena, possibly with the idea that it might be able, in so doing, to force the smaller industrial city to give up the ghost and become a part of the sprawling Babylon on the bayou.14

The story went on to say that since “… Houston went on its annexation binge, and Pasadena did the same thing…” they had become “… almost like two families living in a duplex.”15

The conclusion of the story presaged the concerns of lawmakers who would later pass annexation reforms: “… overexpansion too rapidly is a dangerous thing, as both Houston and Pasadena probably will discover in time.”16

In reality, Pasadena could never compete with Houston’s aggressive annexations. Indeed, the 1940s were just the beginning of the rapid expansion of Houston.

In the coming years, Houston would grow to resemble the massive city that it is today. By the end of the 1950s, it constituted close to 1 million residents and 350 square miles.17

Not long after Houston’s rapid expansion and territorial battles with surrounding cities, the annexation process was reformed to include what is now known as the Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction, or ETJ, with the Municipal Annexation Act of 1963. Cities retained much of their authority to annex citizens without consent, but how much annexation could take place was constrained to within the ETJ.

In the mid-1990s, Houston again stirred controversy by rushing through the annexation of Kingwood, a large suburb north of Lake Houston, northeast of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and far away from the then-city limits of Houston. Because Kingwood was then isolated as an island of higher property values in that part of Harris County, Houston used what is now referred to as “shoestring annexation” to draw a line up Highway 59 to create a contiguous area for annexation purposes. It was very controversial and ultimately led the Texas Legislature to reexamine municipal annexation authority as the 1990s came to a close.

The Kingwood annexation eventually led to another set of legislative reforms at the turn of the century, primarily ensuring that cities planned for annexation and the provision of services, and placed a time limit on how long a city could delay before fully providing services to a newly annexed area.

While Houston’s annexation history is not necessarily indicative of the entire state, or how other municipalities have conducted annexations over time, it does parallel the municipal awakening to annexation authority, and the subsequent legislative responses, over the years.The current annexation statute reflects legislative reforms initiated in large part due to Houston’s annexation activities. There are, generally speaking, two kinds of annexation in Texas for municipalities: general law and home rule annexation.