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COA: Annexation should have been granted

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The Indiana Court of Appeals found that a Circuit Court incorrectly ruled that Muncie failed to meet its statutory burden when trying to annex portions of two residential neighborhoods. The appellate court reversed the finding Muncie's ordinances annexing the land were invalid and the finding the landowners met their statutory burden to oppose the annexation.

In In re: Annexation of certain territory to the City of Muncie, Ind. v. Certain Halteman Village Section I and Brewington Woods Landowners, No. 18A02-0901-CV-89, Muncie appealed the order granting the remonstrance petitions of Halteman Village and Brewington Woods landowners, and the finding that the ordinances that annexed those neighborhoods were invalid. The trial court found the ordinances and the city's fiscal plans failed to meet Indiana Code Section 36-4-3-13(d) by failing to take into consideration the property tax caps when developing its fiscal plans, by not accounting for or providing cost estimates of planned services for the annexed land, and failing to prove fire protection services of an equivalent manner as those currently provided in Muncie could be in place in the annexed territory within a year.

Muncie officials testified at trial they had no way to know at that point the precise effect the tax caps would have on the city and on the level of services provided. The officials also said the services would be provided, regardless of the legislative change.

Subsection 13(d) only requires cost estimates, which the city of Muncie met. Therefore, the trial court erred in finding Muncie failed to meet its statutory burden to prove cost estimates based on its failure to amend the fiscal plans during trial, wrote Chief Judge John Baker.

Muncie officials also testified there would be essentially no extra costs to Muncie as a result of the annexation for noncapital services, so the trial court erred in finding the city failed to meet its statutory burden on this basis, he wrote.

The trial court denied the annexation in part because it believed Muncie couldn't guarantee the needed fire hydrants could be installed within one year as required by statute because it had to be done by a public utility. Because a fiscal plan is an absolute promise that an annexed area will receive comparable capital and noncapital services, without regard to cost, Muncie has committed to provide that service and no further guarantee is required, wrote the chief judge.

The appellate court reviewed the trial court's findings that the annexation would have a significant impact on the landowners and that at least 65 percent of them opposed the annexation. There was no evidence presented on how much any landowner's taxes would increase nor how that would create a substantial financial impact.

"Furthermore, we note that all annexations add a municipal tax layer. Therefore, to find that any tax increase would cause a significant financial impact would essentially bring every annexation under the purview of this subsection (I.C. Section 36-4-3-13(e)(2)), rendering this portion of the statute meaningless," Chief Judge Baker wrote.

The Court of Appeals also found the landowners weren't entitled to relief because they couldn't prove that 65 percent of them still opposed the annexation.

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