The town of Fortville’s effort to annex more than 600 acres was wrongly blocked by a trial court, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Thursday, sending the matter back for further proceedings.
Fortville pared back an earlier proposal to annex nearly 6,000 acres that had riled up residents. The town passed a resolution to annex 644 acres largely surrounded by the town limits on three sides. The annexed land would essentially make Hancock County Road 300 West the town’s western boundary south of State Road 67.
The town argued the annexation was needed to square up its town limits, protect the future of the town utilities that serve the annexed area, and control future development that has sprawled in nearby Fishers and McCordsville and is expected to spread to Fortville.
Remonstrators who own 93 percent of the parcels in the annexation area persuaded Hancock Circuit Judge Richard D. Culver to rule that Fortville had not presented evidence that the area to be annexed was needed and can be used for Fortville’s development in the near future.
“Finding that the trial court erred by applying the wrong evidentiary standard when analyzing Fortville’s need to annex the area and the plans for the area’s development, we reverse and remand proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Judge John Baker wrote for the panel in Town of Fortville v. Certain Fortville Annexation Territory Landowners, 30A01-1410-MI-442.
The panel ruled that the parties had jointly stipulated to facts that left only the issue of whether the annexation is needed and can be used by Fortville for its development in the reasonably near future pursuant to Indiana Code § 36-4-3-13(c)(2).
Baker wrote that the trial court applied the wrong standard in ruling that Fortville had not provided evidence that construction of schools, homes, or roads was planned.
"To allow the trial court’s order to stand would be to hold that a city — if it does not have impending plans to build on land that it seeks to annex — must sit and watch the land be used and developed in ways that might harm or impede its future plans for urban management of the land, until the 'long-term inevitability' of annexation takes place. This result would be bad policy and likely harm both the area to be annexed and the municipality that seeks to annex it. Thus, we determine that the trial court should not have limited its analysis to evidence of physical construction or development in determining whether Fortville fulfilled the requirements of Indiana Code section 36-4-3-13(c)(2).
"Therefore, we hold that the trial court applied the wrong evidentiary standard as a matter of law and find that, in determining whether a municipality fulfills the requirements of Indiana Code section 36-4-3-13(c)(2), a trial court may, and should, consider non-physical brick and mortar development uses, such as those – using annexed territory for 'transportation linkages with other developing areas, to control adjacent development on its borders, and to prevent conflicting land uses – noted by our Supreme court in Hobart” (Chidester v. City of Hobart, 631 N.E.2d 908, 913 n.6 (Ind. 1994).
The COA reversed and remanded with instructions that the trial court apply the correct standard and reconsider its judgment.
The case is an example of shifting standards applied in annexations around Indiana.