A tale of two cities: Olathe, Spring Hill annexation pact silences ‘voter will’ going forward

TOPEKA — Lawyers representing the City of Olathe have argued that the Kansas Supreme Court’s derailment of an annexation pact between Spring Hill and Olathe could jeopardize similar alliances between municipalities guiding development throughout Kansas.

On the contrary, the Spring Hill city attorneys said, the type of open-ended annexation truce adopted in 2006 by nearby towns in Johnson County should not be interpreted as unfairly binding those towns’ elected officials. Spring Hill’s argument was that voters should not be perpetually disenfranchised by the policy decisions of city council members who served more than 15 years ago.

State Supreme Court justices sided with Spring Hill, which decided in 2021 to abandon the annexation deal. The justices said fundamental principles of democracy and Kansas law prohibit an elected governing body from using its legislative power to limit the policy options of subsequent city councils.

“To hold otherwise would invite elected governing bodies to make their policies permanent, preventing future voters from setting their own directions, leading to archaic legislation, stagnation and an inability to respond to changing circumstances,” the judge said. Eric Rosen, who wrote the opinion.

Rosen said that if Olathe were to prevail in the case, “the effect is to silence the will of voters in the future.”

In the July 1 opinion, the state Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling by a Johnson County District Court judge dismissing Olathe’s lawsuit to enforce the annexation agreement with Spring Hill. The judges also agreed with the district court that Olathe was not entitled to financial assistance because Spring Hill unilaterally terminated the agreement.

In 2006, Spring Hill and Olathe entered into a written agreement establishing artificial boundaries for the annexation of unincorporated land adjacent to the two towns. Olathe would not annex south of the demarcation line, while Spring Hill would not venture north of that line. The common goal was to avoid annexation or zoning conflicts and duplication of planning work while giving landowners an idea of ​​how development activities were progressing.

Spring Hill informed Olathe in March 2021 of its intention to annex land north of the border for development with Carvana, a car salesman who has been accused of improperly transferring title to sold vehicles and d abused temporary out-of-state registration permits.

Olathe filed a motion in district court to prevent Spring Hill from annexing land north of the line. Olathe’s attorneys argued that breaking the city-to-city agreement would foster uncertainty for landowners and city planners and open the county to chaotic land grabs by municipalities.

The June 2021 district court ruling in favor of Spring Hill led its city council to immediately move forward with annexing land for the commercial project. Olathe appealed the district court’s decision to the Kansas Court of Appeals, but the case was transferred in September to the state Supreme Court.

Anthony Rupp, a Foulston Siefkin lawyer representing Olathe, argued in the Supreme Court in May that state law allows cities to contract with each other for government services, activities and undertakings. He said this usually involves considering the location of road, water supply and sewage infrastructure, but also includes agreements on future areas for city growth.

Judge Caleb Stegall said he feared setting a precedent where a city council could establish a political position and essentially prohibit the next city council from taking a different perspective on the issue.

“If so, doesn’t that undermine the principles of democratic rule?” says Stegall.

Rupp said a Supreme Court ruling allowing Spring Hill to annex land outside the agreed boundary would essentially tell “the cities that any interlocal agreement is in jeopardy.” Such a position would be inconsistent with the intent of the Kansas legislature, he said.

“There is no doubt that the Spring Hill project violates the annexation contract,” Rupp said. “Nothing could be more of a government enterprise than long-range planning for orderly growth and development.”

Curtis Tideman, of Lathrop GPM representing Spring Hill, said Olathe’s bid to block annexation was properly rejected because the current Spring Hill city council could not be held to the 2006 agreement. Only one board member from 2006 remained, he said.

“There’s no question that by trying to enforce this deal on the current city council, he’s trying to bind future city councils,” Tideman said.

In the Supreme Court ruling, the justices said Kansas’ elected government bodies cannot use legislative power to direct future governing bodies on policy decisions. An elected governing body, the High Court said, can use its administrative or proprietary authority to enter into enforceable contracts to pay a specified sum over a specified period.

The Supreme Court’s opinion stated that legislative powers are related to matters of political competence and general public welfare. Those powers, the court said, involved policy-making and could not be outsourced. The Olathe and Spring Hill agreement “cannot be considered a contract having binding effect on future elected councils,” the decision said.

“It is a rule that stretches across the various jurisdictions of this country and has long been recognized in Kansas,” Judge Rosen wrote. “As early as 1872, this court ruled that ‘in deciding what past laws should be maintained and what should be repealed, each legislature is free and absolute’ and that a legislature cannot restrict the powers of a succeeding legislature. ‘”