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By KEVIN KOELLING
TELL CITY - An attorney and one of the leaders of an effort to prevent Tell City from annexing land around its borders filed a remonstrance petition in the county clerk's office Tuesday, two days ahead of a deadline for doing so.
As the News reported April 10, the Tell City Common Council voted unanimously April 7 to annex 1,776 acres to fulfill a recommendation in the city's comprehensive plan. Their publication of an ordinance April 10 started a 90-day clock in which opponents could gather petition signatures toward a goal of 65 percent of the affected property owners, the minimum needed to get a hearing in court.
Another option was to obtain the signatures of people holding 75 percent of the annexation area‚Äôs assessed value.
Joe Meyer, who has helped lead the effort to gain signatures, said they surpassed the 65-percent mark based on numbers provided by Marlow Smethurst, with the total just over 400. Smethurst, superintendent of the Tell City Electric Department, is also the chairman of the Tell City Annexation Committee.
"Tell City needs to expand its corporate boundary so that the city has area for new development," he explained in a March 27 letter to the editor. "The proposed corporate boundary encompasses a large amount of undeveloped land that could be used for new development."
"The next step is the court is going to review the petition to make sure we either have a sufficient number of parcel owners or sufficient assessed value," Stephen Buschmann explained Tuesday. The attorney for the annexation opponents said signatures will be compared to records, a process that could be made more difficult by recent sales of property. A court hearing will be scheduled at which the number and validity of signatures could be certified.
"Once it's certified," the attorney continued, "the city has certain things it must prove in order for an annexation to go through. If it does, there are also certain things that remonstrators can prove, and if we can prove all of those, even if the city proves theirs, the annexation doesn't happen. We'll focus on some of the issues that we don't think they can prove in their case. Ultimately it'll end up in a trial unless they decide to withdraw their annexation ordinance. They can do that any time they want."
Once the remonstrance is certified, "the court is supposed to hold a hearing within 60 days," Buschmann said. "I have yet to see that ever happen, because generally, both sides are doing some discovery and getting things done to get ready."
Randy Cole, another of the opposition's leaders, said at an April 17 meeting the attorney had worked several annexation cases.
Buschmann said Tuesday he was going to court in two weeks on one filed in October or November, "and that's fairly quick; some of them may take a year or so."
"The way courts of appeal have ruled," he said when asked about his level of confidence, "proving a remonstrators' case is extremely difficult. The issue here, which is similar to a couple of others I've just done, is unless the land is urban in nature - which means it's either 60 percent platted or it's zoned industrial or has more than three people per acre, and this doesn't have any of those - then it is incumbent upon the city to show that - the land is needed and can be used by the city for development in the reasonably near future."
That will be significant, said the attorney, who had just been given a tour of the proposed annexation area.
"It's a pretty big area," he said. "A lot of it is not going to be easy to develop."
Much of it is in floodplain or very hilly, he explained. "I don't know how you'd develop it, but we'll give them a chance to tell us. That's what the process is all about."
Although it probably won't impact this case, he said, the Indiana General Assembly was to convene an interim study committee this summer to examine the issue of involuntary annexations.
"They came within two votes of putting a two-year stay on involuntary annexations," Buschmann said about an annexation bill attempted this year. "It would have passed the House with flying colors but ended up in a 24-24 vote in the Senate the last night."
The legislature's website noted a conference-committee report for Senate Bill 273 "failed for lack of (a) constitutional majority."
"I talked to one of the senators, who said had he had another day, he could have swung the vote," Buschmann said. "So I expect the General Assembly is going to look at it and do some significant revisions to annexation law."
"Cities aren't annexing subdivisions anymore," he said when asked about the General Assembly's interest in the issue. "They're annexing (agricultural) land. Municipal ordinances and farms don't really play well together. In a city, you've got to have noise ordinances and gun ordinances, burning ordinances and all those things that are essential to communal living but don't work on a farm. You get messes."
"They do not want to be annexed," Meyer said of the people approached for signatures in the local remonstrance. They don't see a reason for it or how the city's going to pay costs such as those of running water lines for fire hydrants or increasing police, street-maintenance and trash-collection services.
"They don't see why the city's taking such a large amount of land," he said. "I mean, 1,776 acres is a lot of land. The basic attitude is 'why?' and 'don't.' "
In a guest column published May 29, Tell City Mayor Barbara Ewing wrote that "revenue to cover the anticipated service expenses of the annexation area will be realized from an increase in the tax levy and the usage of funds on hand" including revenue sources such as road mileage, auto-excise tax, financial institution tax, population-based funding and local option income tax and other revenue sources.
The News asked Meyer about concerns expressed in previous reports - and disputed by annexation proponents - about people fearing repercussions if they supported the remonstrance. He was involved in efforts to gain support early this year, he explained.
"I'd go to people's homes," he said, "and they'd say, 'if I sign this, am I going to get in trouble?" "Nobody from the city told them they (would)," he said. "It's just the fear that a lot of people have when it comes to government ... if they buck the system, the're going to get in trouble."