ELKHART — Legislation that would have established a moratorium on involuntary annexations across the state came up two votes short and died in the final moments of the General Assembly on Thursday, March 14.
For Elkhart city officials who are currently attempting to carry out their own annexation plan, the defeat was good news.
Senate Bill 273 appeared to have strong support less than two weeks ago but failed to win enough votes Thursday following a backlash after provisions were inserted in the final days, according Matt Greller, executive director of Indiana Association of Cities and Towns.
“We were committed to going to a summer study and trying to work through the issues, but the steps the legislators took this week … just pushed it too far,” Greller said.
SB 273, authored by Sen. James Buck, would have established a moratorium beginning April 1 that would have extended through the middle of 2015 with the idea that state lawmakers could study the issue this summer and develop a long-range policy to be considered next year.
A final Senate vote was deadlocked at 24-24 Thursday night as legislators scrambled to finalize bills minutes before the short session ended.
Two local state senators — Joe Zakas and Carlin Yoder — supported the plan while Ryan Mishler’s vote against helped kill it, according to a score sheet on the General Assembly’s website.
Greller said IACT had taken a neutral stand weeks earlier, but two provisions angered representatives of local communities and even some supporters of the bill.
One provision would have provided an appeal process during the moratorium if a municipality wanted to move forward with an annexation for economic development purposes. But that appeal would have been left up to the county commissioners.
Another provision would have required municipalities to pay attorney fees for remonstrators regardless of the outcome.
“That really put us into high gear (Thursday) morning,” Greller said. “We lobbied it as hard and aggressively as we could.”
The provisions were added without public discussion or debate, he said.
The county veto provision, Greller said, would have set “a horrible precedent by giving another local government authority over cities and towns.”
The idea of providing veto authority to the county even bothered an Elkhart County official after hearing about it Friday afternoon.
“These are distinct governmental entities. They’re meant to cooperate with each other and not control each other,” said Laura Coyne, redevelopment coordinator for Elkhart County.
Buck, a Republican from the Kokomo area, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Yoder said he believed Buck did not support the attorney fee provision and might not have even been aware of its inclusion prior to the vote.
“I think that probably cost him some votes,” Yoder said. “That certainly seems like an unfair situation.”
Yoder said he believed the frantic pace of changes that often occur at the end of a short legislative session did not help circumstances.
Buck said a week ago in an interview with The Elkhart Truth that the moratorium was needed to put the brakes on some large annexation movements in various cities that he believed were excessive and beyond the intended scope of traditional annexation.
Passage of the bill would have thrown a wrench into the city of Elkhart’s current plans.
The city is in the midst of attempting to annex at least 16 areas — a movement that coincides with a phase out the much-beleaguered compact sewer policy.
City officials had been urged last year by some state lawmakers to annex property that included numerous commercial sewer customers who were upset over the city’s existing compact sewer policy.
Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore said the bill’s defeat was a bright spot in an otherwise troubling legislative session for the city, which saw two other bills head to the governor that would curb the city’s efforts regarding sewer and redevelopment issues.
Moore said they were unable to make headway with area lawmakers on the annexation bill and then began working with IACT with the help of a city attorney.
The city had begun contingency plans in case the proposal become law, but will now move forward “with all our annexations,” Moore said
Yoder, who said he received calls from local officials who opposed the bill, took the defeat in stride. He said he looks forward to a renewed effort next year to reform state annexation policy.
He said he generally does not support the idea of involuntary annexation.
One of his reasons for supporting the bill was because of the impact annexation often has on agricultural land. Buck had said he dislikes attempts by some communities to annex large swaths of agriculturally zoned land with no immediate plans for development.
Yoder, though, pointed specifically to land owned by Bullard Farms off C.R. 17, which is part of Elkhart’s annexation plan.
“It’s unfortunate because it’s going to cost the owners a lot of money through taxes,” Yoder said.