GOSHEN — Chris and Gretchen Martin moved into the Orchard Subdivision within the last five years, after they bought a foreclosed house and fixed it up.
The young couple who is about to have their first child feels very in tune with the community, not just with Orchard but with the city as well, Chris Martin said.
But the Martins were one of several families that showed up to a city council meeting in Goshen on Tuesday evening, Aug. 5, to show opposition to the annexation of the subdivision.
Uncertainty and opposition about the annexation of the Orchard Subdivision have been growing among Orchard residents since efforts to turn the neighborhood into an economic improvement district were first announced last year.
Why an annexation?
Residents sent a petition to the city asking for water and sewer services to be extended to their homes. Though the city is willing to annex the subdivision, it is not willing to pay for the extension of water and sewer services. Therefore, the annexation can only happen if enough petitions are collected.
The message many residents have voiced during meetings with public officials is clear: They cannot afford to pay for the extension of a water and sewer system into their neighborhood now.
During the meeting Tuesday, the council approved the city’s fiscal plan for the annexation of the Orchard Subdivision area and did an initial reading of the annexation ordinance.
The council has to start parts of the annexation process even before the necessary number of signatures in support are collected so that, if the petition drive is successful, construction can start in 2015.
The Martins were the ones who put fliers in the mailboxes of their neighbors last week asking them to show up to the Tuesday meeting and voice their opposition. But they haven’t been the only ones active in the neighborhood.
In an email exchange with Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman last week, City Utilities Engineer Dustin Sailor said he had been receiving several calls from residents asking about updates on the project.
In two public hearings, one in December 2013 and one in July, residents have voiced their concerns to the annexation, councilman Brett Weddell said.
“To be honest with you, just listening to groups speak in three occasions, I don’t think this will happen,” he said about the annexation. “I’ve had people call and stop me throughout town. But I think it’s important that the neighborhood does speak.”
Last week Kenneth Jones, vice president at local consulting firm Jones Petrie Rafinsk, wrote a letter to the mayor and county commissioners saying the company thinks the residents of the subdivision would be making “a very big mistake to not take advantage of what’s been offered to them.”
Jones noted the company has never seen a project in which the city and county are working together and offering so much support for residents as with the Orchard annexation project.
Altogether, the city and county have committed $2,250,000 to help fund a project that has a total cost of about $7.6 million.
Jones also pointed out some reasons why residents should consider signing the petition, like the fact that every operated well and septic system will at some point cost money — replacement can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000.
He also mentioned that many residents have complained of poor quality water and there have been numerous documented replacements and repairs of septic systems in the Orchard.
But some residents, many of whom have recently invested thousands of dollars in septic system replacements or maintenance, say they don’t have the money to help fund the project at this time.
During the council meeting, Orchard resident Bob Metz told the council he saw moving to the Orchard as an investment. Now in his 50s, he’s planning his retirement and doesn’t think he’s willing to pay another $30,000.
“It’s been a nightmare for some of us here. It just came out of the blue,” he said.
Other residents, like Heather Adamson, said they simply cannot afford to pay an extra $115 each month to live where they do.
What happens next?
Petitions for the annexation must be gathered by Oct. 1 and presented to the city. Another public hearing will be Oct. 7. If the petition drive is successful, the city council will have a second reading of the ordinance Nov. 18. If the drive is unsuccessful, the council will defeat the ordinance.
Adamson, voicing a popular argument Tuesday night, said it should be up to each individual resident to look after their own septic systems and wells.
Glenn Stutzman, one of the residents who initiated the movement for the annexation, said that between 1992 and 2011 there were 65 failed septic systems reported to the county’s health department.
The annexation plan was put together to address environmental problems as well as an investment for the residents’ future.
“To not do this and to continue another 20 years and to develop another 65 more replacements I think would decrease the value of your homes out there,” he said.
Stutzman said about 20 people out of 283 property owners in the Orchard have signed the petition. About 70 others have signed an opposition document.
However, he said he will continue campaigning the next two months to gather petitions.
"I’m not under any illusion that this is an easy sell. It’s going to be a lot of hard work to convince folks that this is an investment in their future, in preserving the value of their home,” he said.
Follow Elkhart Truth reporter Sharon Hernandez on Twitter at @Sharon_HT