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Legislative committee recommends making annexations more difficult

October 23, 2014

The legislative committee examining Indiana’s annexation laws underscored how complex and difficult the issue is when committee members looked at the laws Wednesday. The members took a third of the time allotted for the meeting to decide that a remonstrance should succeed if a simple majority of property owners oppose a municipality’s effort to incorporate their land.

Members of the Interim Study Committee on Government met for the final time Wednesday and considered 39 individual recommendations to make to the Legislature. They did not formulate any legislation or review any drafts of bills.  

“These are just recommendations that a bill will, in theory, evolve from,” committee chair Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, told the committee. A legislator isn’t necessarily going to take all the recommendations and create a single bill, she said.

In the committee’s two previous meetings, the members heard testimony primarily from landowners fighting annexation. The property owners who attended Wednesday’s meeting also made the same plea that the General Assembly should stop involuntary annexation.

The message appeared to resonate with committee members.  Much of the meeting was spent debating two key proposals that dealt with voluntary and involuntary annexation.

The first recommendation would require the municipality to get approval from 51 percent of the parcel owners before an annexation may proceed. The second held a remonstrance should prevail if 50 percent plus one of the parcel owners object to the annexation. Under current state law, a remonstrance must have a supermajority of 65 percent of the property owners opposed.

Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, interpreted the first recommendation as ending involuntary annexation so there was no need to approve the second recommendation.

However, both Reps. Gail Riecken and Timothy Wesco disagreed.

Riecken, D-Evansville, said she did not see the two proposals as mutually exclusive, pointing to the “may proceed” language.  If 51 percent of the landowners approve, then the process continues, she said. But if during the process something changes, then the second recommendation can be applied.

Wesco, R-Osceola, said approving only the first item would essentially throw out the remonstrance process and not give landowners any recourse.

On the other side, Sen. Jean Breaux and Rep. Robert Cherry raised concerns that the first recommendation placed too heavy a burden on the cities and towns.

Breaux, D-Indianapolis, did not think the first recommendation gave municipalities the flexibility they would need if an annexation was for the greater good but faced strong opposition. Cherry, R-Greenfield, worried that the municipality could get 51 percent but the annexation was still not certain because a landowner could changes his or her mind, which would stop the process.  

Not getting a unanimous consent, Negele took a vote. Five committee members said no and Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, abstained. Six committee members, including Negele, voted yes and both recommendations were approved.

The second recommendation was proposed to the committee by the Indiana Farm Bureau. After the hearing, Katrina Hall, director of the bureau’s state government relations, said the Farm Bureau advocates leveling the annexation playing field.

Currently, she said, the remonstrators have a difficult time meeting the statute’s criteria to be successful. Moreover, the state courts have sided with the cities and towns despite strong opposition and without considering the criteria.

“The body of caselaw that’s developed around this, there’s a lot of criteria in the law that are to be considered, like the elements of the fiscal plan and so forth,” Hall said. “Most of those have been overwritten by opinions that basically talk about the legislative prerogative that the General Assembly has given municipalities. So (the annexations) are pretty much upheld.”

Allowing a remonstrance to succeed with 50 percent plus one, the landowners and the municipality would both have the same requirement of getting a simple majority. The city would not be given an advantage by having a lower threshold to meet than the property owners. In addition, having the criteria of a simple majority would limit the courts’ involvement in the process. (The county auditors would review and either approve or reject the remonstrators petitions.)

“We’re encouraged by the examination of the variety of recommendations that were there so that we have an opportunity to…put the landowners’ fate in their own hands and that of their neighbors,” Hall said. “Because right now, they feel pretty helpless and very frustrated.”

The committee also recommended:

  • county officials be able to give input on any proposed annexation;
  • Indiana Department of Local Government Finance review and approve a municipality’s fiscal plan for annexation;
  • municipalities should be required to inform the public of a proposed annexation six month prior to adopting an ordinance and could not certify an   annexation until the final unappealable judgment;
  • municipalities should be prohibited from bypassing low-value or high-service-need areas when surrounding properties are being annexed.

Boots said making recommendations was better than approving a draft bill. Legislators will now have the ability to examine the different proposals and decide which ones to put into a bill.

He expects that any resulting legislation will tinker and amend the current annexation laws rather than overhaul the entire process.

“The comprehensive overhaul would be the optimal thing to do but I don’t anticipate that that’s the way it’s going to proceed,” Boots said. “I think we’ll modify the existing statue and we’ll make it cumbersome again, just like we normally do, and that’s what we’ll come out with.”

Still, Boots and Negele see a strong possibility the Legislature will do away with involuntary annexations altogether.

“I think it’s going to be tough to get that passed but possible,” Negele said. “I do believe that we can pass something that makes it very difficult (to do an involuntary annexation). I think getting it down to 51 percent if a fantastic place to start.”

 

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