Raising a flag on a hill — that’s the word picture Cathy Heath uses to describe her decade-long fight to reform North Carolina’s annexation laws.
Involuntary, or “forced,” annexation has long been a political hot potato in North Carolina. Cathy’s quest for reform began in 2001 when the Town of Cary threatened to annex her subdivision in northwest Wake County forcibly.
The change would have meant higher taxes for Cathy and her neighbors. They didn’t want town services or the tax bill accompanying them.
Cathy began researching the annexation issue and found that it was a significant problem in North Carolina and across the country. She became co-director of the Stop N.C. Annexation coalition, a grassroots effort to end forced annexation.
“There were many communities across North Carolina upset about this issue,” she said. “They needed to start talking to one another. I saw there were enough people interested in this issue to make a difference.”
After the Town of Cary backed off its plans to annex her neighborhood, Cathy turned her attention to statewide efforts. She helped residents in Wilmington, Winston-Salem, and mountain communities who were facing forced annexation — devoting hundreds of hours to helping other people.
She joined forces with property-rights groups like Americans for Prosperity N.C. and the Civitas Institute. In 2005, she came up with the idea of a citizen action day at the N.C. General Assembly to counter the N.C. League of Municipalities’ Townhall Day when lobbyists would advocate for forced annexation.
“I knew when I started that it was going to be a long effort. It wasn’t going to happen in two or three years — or even five years. It was going to take some time. But I knew the people were out there, and the sentiment was there,” she said.
A personal mission
Several changes occurred that aided Cathy’s mission: High-profile investigations into top Democrats in the state legislature and governor’s office, the rise of the Tea Party, and the change in partisan control of the N.C. General Assembly from Democrats to Republicans.
Cathy’s efforts culminated in 2011 when the state legislature passed sweeping annexation reforms, at last giving property owners a stronger position from which to fight. The bill specifically changed the annexation process to a referendum vote. Property owners now have more of a direct say.
“It put the power of decision in the hands of the people,” she said.
The evening of May 16, 2011, when the bill passed the House was particularly emotional for Cathy because her beloved husband, Mike, had passed away from cancer just a short while before.
“My husband was a wonderful person,” Cathy said. “He was very proud of me. He supported me in going out there and fighting this battle.”
Raised in Ohio, Cathy studied Landscape Design in college and worked in that field for 10 years. She met her husband in the late 1980s.
“A really big part of my life has always been love of God and neighbor,” she said.
Today, she is taking her skills and passion to the Outer Banks region of North Carolina, including her desire for political activism.
“Annexation issues aren’t something you can say is once and done, and walk away from. There are legislators who are very interested in doing more to reverse the erosion of property rights,” she said.