Indiana Supreme Court weighs Fortville annexation case

INDIANAPOLIS — About 25 people protesting the Fortville annexation filed into the Indiana Supreme Court Courtroom in Indianapolis on Wednesday to hear arguments in a case that has been tied up in court for 16 months.

The court’s five justices — Chief Justice Loretta Rush and justices Steven David, Brent Dickson, Mark Massa and Robert Rucker — heard arguments from attorneys representing the town and those contesting the annexation in a case that could affect the future of Fortville and other municipalities seeking to expand their boundaries. The court’s decision is expected in the coming weeks.

The annexation case first went to court in July 2014 after the town approved the annexation of the unincorporated, largely agricultural property that lies between county roads 200W and 300W north of State Road 234. The annexation area includes 95 parcels, 65 homes and about 160 residents. Landowners representing more than 90 percent of the property owners opposed the annexation.

In September 2014, the court ruled in favor of the remonstrators, denying the annexation. But the Town of Fortville appealed, and the matter was sent back to trial court with instructions to reconsider the case using different criteria.

Before the case went back to the trial court, however, the remonstrating property owners petitioned the Indiana Supreme Court to take up the case, which last month it agreed to do.

On Wednesday, attorney Bryan Babb of Bose McKinney and Evans in Indianapolis, who is representing Fortville, argued the trial court, in quashing the annexation effort, too narrowly interpreted what it means for a town to need land for development.

He also said there’s a lot of evidence that the area is primed for growth; “even the trial court said it understands it’s there, the growth is coming.”

Babb concluded his arguments by saying the Supreme Court must decide to what extent courts get involved in second-guessing what land local governments decide they need to annex.

Stephen Buschmann, the attorney for the remonstrators, argued towns don’t have free rein to annex whatever land they want. The town should show its plans for the land and shouldn’t annex before it has any, he said.

“They’ve admitted in the trial court that they have no plans to develop it,” he said.

Buschmann pointed out “reasonably near future” is not defined by statute, but the fact a town that fails in an annexation may try again after four years might be an indication.

Dickson interjected: “The statute doesn’t say ‘it will be’; it says, ‘can be’ used — whether a property is needed and whether it can be used. And I would think that in an appropriate case, a municipality could, even without a plan for use, show the various (possibilities) without a formal plan.”

Dickson later asked whether Fortville needed the area to prevent it from being annexed by another municipality. “That could be a need, in some situations.”

In his closing statements, Babb argued there are many indications that growth is heading Fortville’s way and that annexation is needed for the area to develop holistically.

Susie Whybrew, a leader of the property owners who organized to stop the involuntary annexation effort, said she felt the justices were thorough when questioning both sides.

“Obviously, there’s not enough time to go into every detail,” she said. “Their questions don’t necessarily reflect the points of what we as remonstrators would like to express.”

Fortville town manager Joe Renner attended and said he also was pleased with the proceedings and felt the town’s case was well-argued.

Kathryn Dolan, chief public information officer for the Supreme Court, said the court typically takes from weeks to months to decide a case.

Residents can check online at courts.in.gov for the announcement of rulings. A full video of the session is also available there. Click on the “Oral arguments” tab and select “Town of Fortville v. Certain Fortville Annexation Territory Landowners.”

Missed the hearing?

Residents can check online at courts.in.gov for the announcement of rulings. A full video of the session is available there. Click on the “Oral arguments” tab and select “Town of Fortville v. Certain Fortville Annexation Territory Landowners.”