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Annexation hearing starts Monday

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FORTVILLE — Since March 2013, a handful of Vernon Township residents who stand to be annexed by the town of Fortville’s plan to acquire land have been fighting against it.

Now, there is a resolution on the horizon as the annexation’s court date nears. The issue will be heard in Hancock County Circuit Court beginning at 8:30 a.m. Monday. According to the court calendar, the hearing could last up to two days.

Attorney Stephen Buschmann, representing remonstrators opposed to the annexation plan, and the Fortville Town Council’s attorney, Alex Intermill, will argue over the merits of the annexation.

“The court has given us two days. But we had a conference with the judge, and we believe we can get this whole thing done in a single day,” Buschmann said.

Town officials have said the plan will give them more control over growth and development in and around the town. Remonstrators say the plan has no real benefit for residents who will go from county residents to Fortville citizens.

Primarily, however, the group is looking for an end to the long process.

“I’m looking for some closure. We all are,” Reduced Annexation Zone committee member Susie Whybrew said. “We’ve been very busy for the past year and a half, after we were notified in a surprising fashion.”

One of the most common complaints from families who do not want to be annexed is the way they were informed: A notification came in the mail.

The Reduced Annexation Zone includes 65 homes, 644 acres, 97 land parcels and 162 residents, according to figures supplied by O.W. Krohn and Associates. The RAZ is a smaller portion of what was originally laid out by Fortville in early 2013, when the original Western Boundary Annexation extended just past CR 400W to the west and down to CR 600N to the south.

The RAZ committee, a group of residents who might still be annexed, hired Buschmann last year. On Oct. 11, the committee had Buschmann  file the petition against annexation at the Hancock County Courthouse. When the petition was finalized, the count was 89 of 97 of affected residents signed in opposition, or about 92 percent. The majority of the property in the RAZ area is agricultural.

That’s one of the main sticking points for farmers in the area opposed to the annexation. In a recent open letter signed by farmers Tony Garst, Teresa Hulburt, Phyllis Kingen, Richard Reichenbach, Carol Yeley and Larry Yeley, they say their relationship with their land “transcends simple ownership. It is steeped in tradition and represents a way of life, not just an occupation.”

In many cases, the farms have seen multiple generations of ownership.

In court, both parties will have to explain why they believe they are right. During the court proceedings, witnesses for both sides of the issue will make their respective cases.

Town officials  are required to show that the property is needed and can be used for development. The remonstrators will have to show that there will be a significant financial impact on residents, while confirming that at least 65 percent of the parcels or 75 percent of the assessed value of the annexation area are in opposition to the plan, which Fight Against Forced Annexation members reported was completed before the petition was finalized in October 2013. They will also have to establish that the plan is not in the best interest of those residents who stand to be annexed.

The court date was originally scheduled to take place April 21 before being pushed back to July 21 at the request of both parties. Both sides agreed to the hearing delay this spring, citing the need for more time to prepare.

“Some of the activity has ebbed and flowed. We are looking forward to not having to continue this process in the future,” Whybrew said.

An immediate resolution during the court proceedings is not likely. It could be weeks before the matter is settled by the judge and the attorneys.

According to RAZ committee members, there will be a large show of support from residents opposed to the annexation as they try to pack the courtroom and hope for a resolution that benefits them. Buschmann said that a large attendance by remonstrators will show the judge that the group is still united against the annexation.

“It’s difficult to plan not knowing what the ruling is. We’re really just going to wait and see what the ruling is,” Whybrew said.

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