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Utica school preservationists win reversal, get day in court

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Clark County residents who sued township officials over how a former school in the Ohio River community of Utica was being used will get to plead their case, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Monday, reversing a trial court order for the township.

The Court of Appeals said the case also points to a need for the General Assembly to address the disposition of old school buildings.

Plaintiffs sued officials of Utica Township because they said the former school wasn’t being used for recreation or park purposes as required by statute. The township had leased the building to a nonprofit that plaintiffs argued intended to use the school as “temporary housing or a halfway house for criminal offenders.”

Special Judge Glenn G. Hancock granted summary judgment for the township defendants in Clark Circuit Court, finding that plaintiffs lacked standing. The Court of Appeals panel  found otherwise.

“(W)e conclude that the Citizens, and others residents of the township, have an interest in the proper administration of the School for park and recreation purposes. It is apparent that a public right, the enjoyment of the School for park and recreation purposes, is at issue because the statutory language in Indiana Code section 20-23-6-9(d) states that the school property is to be offered to the township as a gift for park and recreation purposes and that the deed shall state that the township is required to use the property for park and recreation purposes,” Judge James Kirsch wrote for the panel.

“We, therefore, conclude that the Citizens have standing to proceed with their claim under the public standing doctrine.” The matter was remanded for proceedings on the claim.

Judge Mark Bailey concurred as did Judge Ezra Friedlander, who wrote separately to stress the majority view that statutes offer no guidance for what to do with former schools that no longer can feasibly be used for park or recreational purposes.

“This case illustrates that the statutes enacted by our legislature fail to address certain situations and circumstances that might arise when disposing of school buildings. Although it is not relevant to our holding in the present case, I agree with my colleagues that these gaps merit the General Assembly’s attention,” Friedlander wrote. “Subject to these comments, I fully concur in the lead opinion.”

The case is Old Utica School Preservation, Inc., Kenneth Morrison, Scott Sandefur, and Pamela Sandefur v. Utica Township, John Durbin, Utica Township Trustee, Jacobs Well, Inc., Kevin Williar, John Posey, et al., 10A05-1308-PL-388.





 

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