Annexing policies stirring debate

GREENFIELD — Cities and towns could be required to provide more notification to residents of an area they want to annex under proposed legislation, but proponents of a change in state law say it might not go far enough.

There are at least three bills on annexation making their way through the General Assembly, and Fortville residents spoke in favor of the changes last summer in legislative committees.

With a judicial appeal on the town’s annexation plan pending in court, Susie Whybrew and a few other residents in the proposed annexation area spoke to lawmakers about their legal woes and pushed for more notification, a more thorough fiscal plan and an easier way to formally protest annexations.

While their suggestions were well received last year — Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, wrote a bill that passed unanimously out of the summer study committee — what will happen this legislative session is unclear.

Each bill on annexation has its own nuances, and in a complicated legislative approval process where bills die or ideas from a failing bill get tacked onto one that is gaining momentum, it’s hard to see what changes if any will be made this year.

“We have to come up with a consensus that’s going to work with econ development and yet respect landowners’ rights,” said Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, who co-wrote House Bill 1268 with Cherry.

The legislation would require more notification to residents who are being annexed and would ease the remonstrance process. Put simply, Cherry said, if more than half the residents of the proposed area don’t want to be annexed, they don’t have to be.

Indiana is one of only two states that has forced, or involuntary, annexation, he said.

“The public wants to be able to decide whether they want to be annexed or not,” he said. “It’s like government is choosing their constituents rather than the constituents choosing their government.”

But HB 1268 is on its death bed. Negele said a similar bill, House Bill 1561, probably will take the lead, and perhaps language from her bill will be inserted into it.

Whybrew, who was looking forward to the promise of Cherry’s bill, said she worries HB 1561 doesn’t go far enough.

While the proposed legislation requires cities to have the annexation fiscal plan reviewed by a state agency and also requires an outreach program for landowners, it doesn’t give specific parameters, Whybrew said.

And the bill does not allow people to remonstrate against an annexation if the area is receiving services from the city or town.

Whybrew, a member of the group fighting against Fortville’s proposed 644-acre annexation, was among a small group who spoke in favor of annexation law reform last summer.

She plans to speak this week in a committee hearing on Senate Bill 330, yet another proposal that would change the way towns can acquire land. That bill would require towns to get signatures of at least 51 percent of landowners or 60 percent of the assessed value in order for an annexation to proceed.

That’s only fair, she said, to make sure the process is democratic.

“It’s not burdensome on a town. I think it’s their responsibility,” she said. “It demonstrates their willingness to reach out and be friendly about it and not be antagonistic.”

Tempers flared in Fortville during the past two years when rural residents were surprised to hear town officials had planned a large annexation. The area includes 65 homes, 97 parcels and 162 residents, which is a smaller portion of the original annexation plan that was tossed out amid intense opposition from an even larger number of landowners.

Last year, Hancock Circuit Judge Richard Culver ruled in favor of the remonstraters, but town officials quickly decided 3-2 to appeal that ruling. The appeal is pending. Even if a state law is passed on annexation this year, it wouldn’t affect Fortville’s plan because the proposal is already deep into its legal approval process.

Joe Renner, Fortville town planner, said state lawmakers shouldn’t come up with a one-size-fits-all approach to annexation. He said Fortville’s annexation makes sense for the town’s growth plans.

“The annexation we’re looking at, when we’re able to show the details of what we’re doing, it makes very good sense, and it’s kind of a no-brainer,” Renner said.

While rural Hancock County residents spoke in favor of annexation reform, Whybrew was quick to point out they weren’t the only ones, adding that there are problems with annexation law across the state.

Negele said residents make an impassioned plea, but it’s up to lawmakers to make sure the process is fair for everyone, including cities that want to grow and provide economic development to an area.

“One of the weaknesses cities and towns can tell you, they haven’t done a proper job of educating the landowner and telling them it’s a tremendous opportunity for them to become a part of city and town,” she said.

Lawmakers are working with the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, Association of Indiana Counties and Indiana Farm Bureau to reach some sort of consensus. What that consensus might be and in which bill is up in the air, she said.

“It’s just trying to create this balance where we’re not stifling growth,” she said.

About the bills

There are several bills before the Indiana General Assembly that would change the way cities and towns are allowed to annex land. Here’s a look at three of them:

House Bill 1561 boosts the notification process cities and towns must go through to educate landowners when annexing, and it requires a state agency to review the annexation’s fiscal plan. If the annexation land receives any service from the municipality, residents may not officially protest. Written by Rep. Randy Truitt, the bill is being considered in a committee on government and regulatory reform.

House Bill 1268 places additional notification requirements on cities that are annexing land and eases the remonstrance process for property owners. Written by Rep. Sharon Negele and co-authored by Greenfield Rep. Bob Cherry, the bill is essentially dead, Negele said. However, part of it could be inserted into House Bill 1561.

Senate Bill 330 requires cities to first get signatures of at least 51 percent of landowners or 60 percent of assessed value of land before annexing. Written by Sens. Philip Boots, Randall Head and James Buck, the bill is being considered in a committee on local government.