Dave Stafford for www.theindianalawyer.com
Brownsburg has lost its final bid to annex nearly 4,500 acres of land after fighting residents who objected all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court. Justices ruled the town “did not satisfy its burden of proving it had met the statutory requirements for annexing the disputed territory.”
The state’s high court affirmed a Hendricks Superior Court ruling denying the town’s bid to annex property that met organized opposition in the form of a citizens group called Fight Against Brownsburg Annexation. The city continued to fight, losing at the Indiana Court of Appeals and in a unanimous Indiana Supreme Court ruling Wednesday.
The court also held that in annex cases, trial courts must consider the evidence presented by both the municipality seeking to annex land and remonstrators who oppose the consolidation.
Brownsburg failed to meet requirements of state law that any proposed annexations be at least 60 percent “subdivided,” which Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote was a term undefined in the legal sense. However, he noted that more than 70 percent of the land included in the proposed Brownsburg annexation area was agricultural land.
Justices also provided guidance for determining when proposed annexation areas meet statutory requirements for percentage of subdivided land and other factors.
“…(T)he only permissible unit of measurement is acreage and not the number of parcels or tracts of land,” Slaughter wrote. “…(A)ll acreage within the proposed annexation territory must be included in the ratio’s denominator, and none should be exempted or excluded.
“Unlike the trial court, we are agnostic about whether the legislature should define ‘subdivided’ — a key statutory term, to be sure, in many annexation disputes. That is a matter for the legislature. But until or unless the legislature specifies the term’s meaning, courts and communities interested in local annexation issues should proceed with these guideposts in mind.”
Brownsburg had provided expert testimony from a city employee who had used various methods, including calculating the number of individual parcels of land or lots in platted subdivisions to represent a total exceeding the 60 percent threshold. Remonstrators prevailed on a survey from the Indiana Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations showing that nearly 77 percent of the land was agricultural.
Justices also found Brownsburg failed to meet another requirement of state law showing that the land is needed by the town for development “in the reasonably near future.” The town proposed a future extension of Ronald Reagan Parkway to relieve traffic on Raceway Road and State Road 267, a project first conceived in the 1980s.
“Even the Town agrees that the timeframe for extending the Parkway past its current terminus within the Town’s limits through the annexation area is ‘[o]ver the next five to fifteen years,’” the court noted. “And even then, the ‘timing of construction is not precisely known.’”
Other projects on the Brownsburg drawing board, such as a new bridge over Interstate 74, likewise were not imminent enough to meet the “in the reasonably near future test,” justices concluded. “As with the sixty-percent subdivided requirement, we hold that the court’s findings of fact here are not clearly erroneous, and that the record supports its conclusions of law,” Slaughter wrote.
Deciding the matter on these bases, the court did not address arguments that Brownsburg’s annexation plan was not legally contiguous to existing town limits or that the town’s fiscal plan for the annexation area was not sufficient.
The case — which also garnered friend-of-the-court briefs from Accelerate Indiana Municipalities and the Indiana Municipal Lawyers Association — is Town of Brownsburg, Indiana, et al. v. Fight Against Brownsburg Annexation, et al., 19S-PL-342.