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home : most recent : statewide implications December 14, 2017


12/3/2017 6:58:00 PM
Municipal growth or unwelcome intrusion? NWI towns strategize future through annexation

Phil Wieland, Times of Northwest Indiana

Cedar Lake is a prime example of how the perceived benefits, or pitfalls, of annexation depend on whether one is the annexer or the annexee.

Many Region communities surrounded by open territory see annexation as an important tool for growth — and controlling the growth of surrounding areas.

Many of those living in areas of potential annexation see it as an unwelcome intrusion that will increase property taxes and bring unwanted development.

Merrillville and Winfield were created by local residents to avoid being annexed by Gary and Merrillville, respectively.

Cedar Lake is locked in a court battle regarding its attempt to annex 2,800 acres along the U.S. 41 corridor from 137th to 173rd streets.

The Cedar Lake Town Council decided last month to appeal the case to the Indiana Supreme Court, after the lower courts blocked annexation on grounds the town failed to show the area was needed and can be used for municipal development in the reasonably near future.

The decision to appeal came only three days before the Nov. 10 deadline to file. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court will accept the case.

The decision to appeal was not unanimous.

Cedar Lake Council President Randy Niemeyer said he preferred letting the lower court decision stand and move on, but agreed to go along with the majority of the council.

More at stake than growth

“What’s being challenged is the fact the lower courts gave no consideration to the legislative authority of the local government,” Niemeyer said.

“It could be a precedent-setting case that, if we lose, could mean any local ordinance could be challenged and overturned.”

He said the home-rule powers of local communities have been slowly eroded by the Legislature during the past 40 years.

“We followed the old statute that was in effect, but no deference was given to our legislative authority,” he said.

The Legislature was in the process of changing the “old statute” on annexation when Cedar Lake made its annexation move in January 2014. Niemeyer said the town had discussed the annexation for more than a decade, but the timetable for action was hastened by knowledge of the Legislature’s intentions.

The new statute didn’t take effect until July 2014, and it made it much more difficult for communities to annex land unless all affected property owners favored it, a so-called super-voluntary annexation.

Before that, annexation could be approved as long as the owners of a majority of the land approved. That meant one person owning a large piece of property could decide the fate of dozens of smaller adjacent parcels.

“Because of the growth factors in place, we wanted to be in front of it from a planning standpoint,” Niemeyer said of the council’s decision to annex the U.S. 41 corridor.

“It’s never easy to have a big vision. You get a lot of pushback on it, but we want to be responsible stewards of the land. And having a good land-use plan in place is part of that."

The annexation attempt has been opposed by a group of residents calling itself No Cedar Lake Annex. The group gathered signatures on petitions opposing the annexation and sent letters to all the property owners asking for donations of $100 to $150 each to pay the legal fees to fight it. Additional fundraising letters have followed each appeal.

“I have friends that I’ve known in the area, and I thought the town was overreaching what it was able to provide services to, and it was grasping at straws to get the benefits of the Illiana Expressway,” Jim Metro, the group’s vice president, said.

“When Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner put a stop on the expressway, they had no purpose for needing this.”

Metro said 82 percent of the property owners signed petitions against the move on the grounds they would be paying higher taxes and getting no benefits.

“Except for how they were going to use the additional taxes for the town, we didn’t hear anything about what they would do for us,” Metro said.

“They don’t have money to fill vacancies on the police force, but the money they are wasting on this fight would be more than enough.”

Niemeyer said the money for the annexation is coming from the Redevelopment Commission, and that the Police Department is at full staff. He said the services the town would provide to the annexed area is spelled out in the annexation ordinance, and, “if we couldn’t provide them, the annexation would have been void.”

Lowell has eye on I-65

An annexation plan is part of the comprehensive plan of most communities in southern Lake and Porter counties, largely the bastion of municipalities surrounded by rural tracts with room to grow.

Lowell previously had a pre-emptive annexation committee, but it was dissolved three years ago when talk of the Illiana Expressway died down, said LeAnn Angerman, Lowell council president.

“We are trying to identify those parcels that would be interested in friendly annexation so we can expand our borders that way — mostly east and west (along Ind. 2)," Angerman said.

"There’s a lot of activity to the east of us (at the intersection of Ind. 2 and Interstate 65), but it’s not easy to take advantage of it because of the new legislation.”

The Cedar Lake annexation would have brought that town almost to Lowell’s doorstep. That would be an issue for Lowell, which also covets the area. During the Illiana discussions, Lowell drew up a map prioritizing where annexations would be most likely to occur and would be most beneficial. Angerman said the town still has the map, but it is outdated.

“Just to grow, to grow, is not necessarily a good thing. But if you prepare for it, plan it out and work with those who want to be annexed, that is the best avenue,” she said.

“When you start annexation, you have to make sure you can handle it with emergency services and utilities."

“We can’t do things as in the past," he said.

"We have to have a more friendly approach, which we’ve taken in Lowell. We’ve kept our eye on the I-65 corridor, and we have been moving toward U.S. 41 through voluntary annexations. We’re not trying to force anyone to annex. The annexations we’ve done have followed the plan we adopted.

“Lowell has about 10,000 people, and we make pretty good use of the land for residential development. But we have no space for industry to develop in town. We are reaching out to the I-65 area, because we see it as a logistical corridor for trucking companies and others."

Plans in Porter County

Valparaiso and Kouts have annexation plans in their comprehensive plans, and the two communities are slowly growing toward each other. Valparaiso Planning Director Tyler Kent said the city’s growth was slowed by the 2008 recession, but is starting to pick up again with a lot of subdivisions coming into the city.

“Annexation is a tool for managing growth and development for the city,” Kent said.

“It’s important to be able to annex those areas when development comes in so they can meet the standards for the city codes if we are going to be providing utilities. You have to go through the fiscal plan to make sure it makes sense to annex those properties.”

Kouts Engineer Jim Mandon drew up the annexation plan for the town several years ago looking at seven or eight avenues for growth around the town and prioritizing them. The areas closest to the water and sewer plants would be the easiest and were assigned the highest priority, but reality doesn’t always follow the best-laid plans.

“You try to figure out where development will occur and what type it will be,” Mandon said.

“That will tell you how much demand the utilities will be under. Several assumptions have to be made, and if they aren’t correct, you have to change the plan. There hasn’t been a lot of development since the plan was adopted.

“We anticipated industrial development along Ind. 8 that hasn’t come, and some residential to the northeast that hasn’t happened yet,” he said.

Hebron has its own approach to annexation, Clerk-Treasurer Alan Kirkpatrick said.

“We know where we want to go, and we just persistently ask,” Kirkpatrick said.

“It would take a lot of effort to start an annexation, because there is so much sentiment to keep things rural. It was hard enough to build a new high school. They had to buy farmland to do that.”

Five St. John annexations in 2017

St. John undertook five annexations this year, all of them super-voluntary, and Town Manager Steve Kil said the town’s comprehensive plan identifies future areas for annexation that coincide with expansion plans for the utilities.

“We don’t do any hostile annexations,” Kil said.

As for prioritizing where the town wants to grow, he said, “It’s impossible for us to know what properties will sell and when they will develop.”

Valparaiso lawyer David Hollenbeck, who has represented several Region municipal governments for many years, said, “The ability to annex is critical to the overall well-being of a community as far as growth and being able to control zoning. As a lawyer who has represented communities for a career, I’ve seen the value of annexation as a tool, and it needs to be available.

"But the Legislature has created hoops that need to be jumped through.”

Copyright 2017, nwitimes.com, Munster, IN






Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR


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