COA: Trial court imposed restrictive standard for remonstrance petition

The Perry Circuit Court imposed too strict of a standard on a group of property owners when it denied their remonstrance petition because some of the signatures did not exactly match the signatures on tax duplicates, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided Thursday.

When Tell City adopted an ordinance in April 2014 to annex nearly 1,776 acres of land into its corporate limits, property owners who owned part of the land in question filed a remonstrance petition with the Perry Circuit Court challenging the annexation. The petition included a line for each of the 438 property owners’ signatures and printed names, as well as lines for each of them to date the petition.

However, the auditor of Perry County found that 145 of the signatures did not comply with Indiana Code 36-4-3-11(b) because they did not “exactly match any of the names listed on the tax duplicate such that the signatures may not comply with Indiana law.” For example, one person signed the petition as “Joe” rather than “Joseph,” and others added middle initials to their signatures.

The auditor additionally found the total value of the property held by the owners was not more than 75 percent of the total value of the annexation property, as is required for standing under I.C. 36-4-2-11(a). The property owners objected to the auditor’s findings, arguing, among other things, that she had improperly counted state-owned parcels separately rather than as one single parcel, an error that, if corrected, gave the owners standing under Indiana Code.

The Perry Circuit Court ultimately entered findings of facts and conclusions that the petition did not contain the necessary signatures to give the property owners standing to challenge the annexation, but did not decide on the merits whether the state’s parcels should be counted as one. On appeal, the property owners argued that the court erred in its determination of how many signatures were valid.

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed Thursday in the case of Certain Tell City Annexation Territory Landowners v. Tell City, Indiana, 62A01-1603-MI-510. Judge Rudolph Pyle, writing for the unanimous panel, said in the opinion the assertion each signature had to exactly match the name on the property tax duplicate was too restrictive of a standard and is not supported by statute.

The petition in question contained the property owners’ names in three forms, Pyle said – the documentation of the name as it appeared on the tax duplicate, the printed name and the signature.

“The trial court concluded that the signature had to exactly match the property tax duplicate, but we disagree in light of the language of the statute,” Pyle wrote. “Instead, we conclude that the statute allowed for the tax duplicate to constitute prima facie evidence of ownership if it was the same as the Petition’s statement of the Property Owner’s name in any of these three contexts.”

“The prima facie standard implies that while certain evidence may be sufficient to establish a fact, it is not, by necessity, the only evidence that may establish that fact,” Pyle continued. “This is a flexible standard that does not require a specific form of evidence to establish ownership.”

Based on that interpretation, Pyle said there were at least 416 compliant signatures on the petition, giving the owners a sufficient percentage for standing. Thus, the trial court erred in dismissing the petition and the case was remanded. Additionally, the court did not address the issue of whether the state’s parcels should have been counted as one because the owners had enough signatures.  

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