Annexation law gets mixed reaction

GREENFIELD — Cities will have a trickier time drawing new land into their limits under an annexation law that goes into effect this summer.

Senate Enrolled Act 330, signed into law last week by Gov. Mike Pence, is getting mixed reviews from local residents.

While rural residents are glad to see an easier remonstrance process, city officials said the law could negatively impact economic development and their ability to grow. Several Fortville area residents lobbied in favor of annexation reform throughout the legislative session. In 2013, Fortville officials approved a large-scale annexation plan, but rural residents remonstrated against the proposal. A local judge ruled in the remonstrators’ favor, but the case remains tied up in appeals.

For Susie Whybrew, the new law is a step in the right direction. She lives in the 644-acre area that Fortville hopes to annex. It won’t help her case, but she said it will help other rural residents who could get drawn in to city limits against their will.

“I think we’ve had some significant breakthroughs with some of the new provisions, and I think they are far more fair; and it does balance the law a little bit more,” she said.

Whybrew made a dozen trips to the Statehouse and watched as three annexation bills were merged into one compromise and approved in the final hours of the session. For the most part, she was pleased.

Starting July 1, annexations can be halted if at least 65 percent of landowners sign a petition against the proposal. Whybrew had hoped for 51 percent.

“Our whole goal from the beginning was to get the threshold down to 51 percent for any kind of remonstrance,” Whybrew said. “That, to me, is the only democratic way to do it. Legislators and elected officials get elected by a simple majority, and they pass laws by a simple majority. We just think we should have the same rights.”

Still, Whybrew said, at least the new law is better than the old, where the remonstrance goes to court. Under the new law, a remonstrance could still go to court if between 51 and 64 percent of landowners sign a petition.

The new law would have made the difference in Fortville’s case. In 2013, 91 percent of landowners in the proposed annexation area signed a petition against the annexation. Under the new law, the annexation would have stopped at that point.

The new law also requires cities to hold an outreach program for the annexation area, provide more details in a fiscal plan and provide locations for people to sign a remonstrance.

But how the law affects annexations that are taking place right now is unclear. For example, the Greenfield City Council passed a first reading in April of a small annexation in a neighborhood just south of Riley Park. The Hill Grove addition could be drawn into city limits to improve sewer services, and the city council approved a fiscal plan Wednesday.

But there are several more steps before the annexation takes effect, and Greenfield utilities director Mike Fruth said he’s trying to figure out whether the new law could affect the annexation.

“Overall, I think for Greenfield it’s a lot of things that are unnecessary,” he said of thenew law.

Fruth said Greenfield has always done community outreach, and most of Greenfield’s annexations are small, based on requests of rural residents.

“Many communities in the state of Indiana are doing things proper and give good process,” Fruth said. “I think this law was probably addressing a small number of communities that were facing controversies in annexations.”

Also in limbo is how the law will affect economic development. A provision states that starting in 2017 an annexation for an economic development project will not be automatically stopped if 65 percent of landowners are against it. The annexation will go before a judge.

“It makes the process much longer,” he said. “When you look at (the fact that) you have to start six months out working with all the landowners and then the other things you have to do with this, it’s just going to drive up the cost with an extended period of time. Most of our annexations are friendly annexations, where people want it.”

McCordsville town manager Tonya Galbraith can see both sides. She said the town provides plenty of community education whenever it wants to expand.

McCordsville is trying to annex roughly 2,000 acres to draw the Indianapolis Regional Airport into town limits.

Any requirements that expand public outreach are positive, Galbraith said. Still, she worries about whether the law could hinder economic growth.

“The way the bill ended up was better than the way it had started out, which basically was doing away completely with town-initiated annexations and made it all voluntary,” Galbraith said. “It’s already a very lengthy process. It’s going to be a lot longer, which if you’re trying to do an economic development project, time is money, and that’s going to be a problem. You’re just going to have to pay more attention to your timelines and your outreach, which is probably not a bad thing.”

At a glance

A new state law on annexations is getting mixed reviews from Hancock County residents. Cities and towns are now required to do more legwork, and those against an annexation will have an easier time stopping it. The law affects annexations adopted after June 30. Here’s a glance at what the law does:

  • An annexation is stopped if at least 65 percent of property owners sign a remonstrance.
  • An annexation could still be stopped if 51 percent of landowners sign a  remonstrance; the case would go before a judge. 
  • Cities and towns are required to conduct an outreach program to inform residents about the proposed annexation. Communities also must provide places for a remonstrance to be signed.
  • Remonstrance petitions are to be filed with the county auditor (instead of a court).
  • If a remonstrance goes to court, the judge will not be allowed to consider personal or business finances in determining whether the annexation will have a significant financial impact on residents or landowners.
  • Fiscal plans presented in an annexation must be more thorough.
  • If land is part of an economic development project, the annexation may proceed to court even if the 65 percent threshold is met. (This portion is effective Jan. 1, 2017.)