Property owners told Indiana legislators Sept. 24 that despite the General Assembly’s continual tinkering with the state’s annexation statute, the process still favors municipalities by giving them all the power to take the land they want without considering the owners’ wishes.
“Involuntary annexation has become a form of legalized bullying,” Boone County resident Bev Ramsey said.
Ramsey and other homeowners along with representatives from interested associations testified during the second meeting of the Interim Study Committee of Government. The committee has been charged with studying a variety of annexation issues.
At the start of the meeting, committee chair Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, acknowledged emotions run high on both sides of the annexation debate and she reminded her committee members that they need to find a balance between the interests of municipalities and property owners.
Ramsey and her neighbors in a southwestern section of Boone County are fighting an annexation by Whitestown. The property owners filed a remonstrance and won at trial, but at a special meeting the Whitestown Town Council voted to appeal the decision.
Although the property owners’ attorney charged a flat fee of $7,500 for the trial, Ramsey questioned whether she and her neighbors could afford the costs of fighting multiple appeals.
“Do you realize involuntary annexing affects real people, real people’s’ possessions and real people’s finances?,” Ramsey asked the committee. “These are not inanimate objects but real people. Let the choice of annexing be (with) the people who are being annexed and not (with) the town doing the annexing.”
Others testifying also advised the committee to recommend legislation that gives landowners the ability to nix a proposed annexation without having to go through a protracted and expensive remonstrance.
Indianapolis attorney Stephen Buschmann advocated abolishing involuntary annexation altogether. He recommended that before a municipality can annex any area, it must get approval from 51 percent of the property owners. Or, he added, an involuntary annexation will fail if 51 percent of the property owners or 51 percent of the assessed value files remonstrance petitions.
Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, suggested cites and towns should be required to get signatures in favor of annexation from 65 percent of the property owners’ before being allowed to incorporate land in the county.
Testifying before the committee, Buck noted the Legislature has grappled with annexation for a number of years but he sees the process as reverting back to a feudal system where homeowners are becoming subservient to municipalities.
The only method property owners have for fighting annexation, Buck said, is through remonstrance. These lawsuits could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their own pockets while the municipalities use taxpayers’ money.
Buck said a reasonable person understands municipalities have a need to annex so they can grow in a structured way. However, he told the committee members he hoped they would develop a process for annexation that is fair.
Rhonda Cook, director of government affairs and legislative counsel for the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, said that legislation passed during recent sessions is actually pushing municipalities to annex.
Bills passed during the 2012, 2013 and 2014 sessions placed restrictions on local government’s ability to extend utilities to areas outside city limits. The measures, Cook testified, has had a chilling effect on municipalities providing services to unincorporated areas, Instead cities and towns are opting to annex rather than risk customers petitioning the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for a review.
Buschmann told the committee that the 1999 amendment the General Assembly approved to the state’s annexation law which gave landowners the right of remonstrance to fight involuntary annexations has been “significantly weakened” by the appellate courts.
The partner at Thrasher Buschmann & Voelkel P.C. cited several decisions that he said determined property owners have no protectable interest in remaining outside city limits; barred remonstrators from filing new petitions after the initial petitions had been filed but allowed the municipalities to try to get property owners to withdraw their petitions; and eroded remonstrators’ ability to prove their case at trial as well as their ability to appeal.
Hancock County resident David Huff and his neighbors have been battling an annexation attempt by Fortville. He detailed the community’s past annexations and zoning changes, describing the moves as being done solely to protect the town’s interest.
“The successful bonding of a community cannot be forced,” Huff testified. “Forced annexation is a complete waste of time, money, resources and effort, and around Fortville, forced annexation efforts has tarnished the town’s image, driving people away.”