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Judges disagree on whether landowners are 'aggrieved'

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Jurists on the Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed on an issue of first impression about what an “aggrieved” party is when it comes to filing a mandate or injunction against a water conservancy district under state statute.

In a 2-1 ruling today in Phyllis and Michael Klosinski v. Cordry Sweetwater Conservancy District, No. 07A01-1008-PL-429, the court majority affirmed and reversed in part a decision from Brown Circuit Judge Judith Stewart involving the construction of sanitary sewer facilities and alleged failure to keep a pair of local lakes sediment-free.

The Klosinskis have owned property in the conservancy district since 1979, and about three years ago they asked for court action against the governing board because the district was exceeding its statutory authority by enacting rules on issues including building codes, road use, the creation of a police force, and carrying firearms. The trial court denied most injunction requests but did issue a general injunction prohibiting the district from establishing or enforcing rules that don’t further its statutory purposes.

Both sides filed appeals, with the Klosinskis arguing the lower court erred by denying their injunction petition while the district argued the property owners didn’t have standing to sue in the first place because they aren’t “aggrieved” parties.

Indiana Code Section 14-33-5-24 governs conservancy districts and proves that “an interested person adversely affected by an action committed or omitted by the board in violation of this chapter may petition the court having jurisdiction over the district to enjoin or mandate the board.”

No state cases have specifically addressed the meaning of “an interested person adversely affected,” though the Indiana Supreme Court in 2004 did address a similar issue in the context of the Administrative Orders and Procedures Act using a definition from Black’s Law Dictionary that said the concept of aggrieved is a “personalized harm.”

In this case, Judges Michael Barnes and Nancy Vaidik determined that the Klosinskis had no specific harm and only demonstrated a general concern as taxpayers to bring standing – they weren’t denied building permits or fined or sued by the district, for example.

“General standing principles are inapplicable here,” the majority wrote. “To be ‘adversely affected,’ the Klosinskis must have more than a generalized concern. They must identify a specific harm to pecuniary, property, or personal interest. Simply arguing that they are taxpayers is insufficient.”

The two-judge majority pointed to how this standing issue created problems with the trial court order in this case, which partially grants and denies various parts of what the property owners were asking. That leaves the district little guidance on what actions are outside its statutory purposes, they wrote.

But Judge John Baker dissented on the “aggrieved party” aspect of the case, finding that the Klosinskis did have standing because they lived in the district and would be impacted by these rules and any assessments or fees that might result from these actions. Applying the rationale from a case involving the AOPA isn’t the way to resolve this dispute where the record established these property owners are “aggrieved,” he wrote.

“The statute at issue here is the Conservancy Act, Indiana Code section 14-33-1-1 et seq., and the Klosinskis asserted that the District was violating the statute by exceeding its authority in several areas,” Judge Baker wrote. “As noted above, the Klosinskis were directly affected by the District’s rules and regulations and they pay the fees for the District’s services. The aim of the Klosinskis was to see an order compelling the District to follow the law and refrain from acting beyond its authority.”
 

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