City Limits: Explaining the annexation process

single-meta-cal February 23, 2018

With its reputation for high-quality services and riding a momentum of success, Huntsville is no stranger to annexation requests from residents living in nearby counties. On any given year, we receive anywhere from a few to a few dozen requests. 

One of the latest, as approved by Council at the February 22 regularly scheduled meeting, added 659.1 acres of land to the Rocket City. It is the first time the City annexed land in Morgan County; the property is directly across the Tennessee River from Ditto Landing.

The word “annexation” can sometimes lead to misunderstanding. For example, a recent petition from some Lacey’s Spring residents suggested Huntsville was preparing for a forcible takeover in the case of the Morgan County property up for consideration, an annexation against the will of property owners. This wasn’t the case, and we hope to ease some of those concerns by doing what we can to demystify how the annexation process works.

The annexation process typically begins when a request for annexation is made from property owners, when folks want to be a part of the City of Huntsville and gain access to City services. Below, we’ll explore the big picture strategy that helps ensure we’re growing smartly as well as review the various considerations made by City departments with each annexation request.

The Big Picture

Dennis Madsen, the City’s Manager of Urban and Long Range Planning, pays close attention to annexation requests, because every new addition becomes a part of Huntsville’s long-term plan.

Each new ingredient gets measured carefully.

“We think about what secures good quality of life, what secures good economic development, what fills in some of the gaps in our current jurisdiction,” Madsen said. 

For example, that annexed land in Morgan County? It accentuates Huntsville’s only riverfront access and compliments Ditto Landing, which can help the entire area live up to its potential as a recreation destination as well as help preserve and protect the beauty of the Tennessee River.

Sometimes, the City will identify areas that could be beneficial for economic development, like the Toyota-Mazda megasite in Limestone County. In these cases, the City might initiate the conversation with property owners, but even in cases like this, the property owner(s) agree and start the process.

The majority of annexation requests we receive in the Planning Department aren’t like that though. Most requests are small tracts of land from individual property owners who simply want access to City services. This means they want to be served by Huntsville Police, Fire & Rescue, City sanitation, etc. They want their children to go to Huntsville City Schools.

The Process

Here are the big things to remember. The annexation process is dictated by state law. There are four methods of annexation, and only one of those can be used to annex property against the desires of the residents in the area. That is by a local act of the Alabama Legislature.

The remaining three methods require the unanimous consent of the owners, either by an election or by the completion of a petition (essentially an online form signed by property owners). The latter is most typical and it applies to the method used for the Morgan County tract.

Once the city receives the petition for annexation through the completion of an online form on, it goes through a thorough internal review process to determine if annexation is appropriate based on a number of considerations. Those considerations include the ability to serve the area, the benefit to the city, and the potential impact to city schools. 

An essential determination that must be made from the get-go, however, is whether the land to be annexed is contiguous to, (touches) the city limits, and whether or not it is outside the corporate limits or police jurisdiction of other cities.  If it does lie outside city limits, then the process continues and typically takes about two months.  The culmination of the process is the consideration of the petition by the City Council.    

The Vote

The process is a detailed one involving various city departments who each have a vital role to play. As Dennis Madsen would say, “There is always a whole lot of multi-departmental homework done in cases like these.”  He’s right. There are many eyes that look at each annexation request before it even gets to the City Council. 

If the majority of Council Members vote yes on annexation requests, like they just did in the Morgan County case, we’ve got some new land in Huntsville City Limits, or even better, new neighbors to welcome. 

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call the City of Huntsville’s Planning Department.  You can reach us at 256-427-5100. We’re here to help.