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The Journal Gazette

Huntertown seeks ‘4-mile rule’ advantage in services area dispute

How a recent Court of Appeals decision will affect territorial disputes between Huntertown and Fort Wayne City Utilities remains to be seen.

Officials from both entities have differing opinions on the Dec. 23 decision that involved two Hoosier towns.

Chandler and Newburgh were fighting for the right to be the primary water and sewer services provider within the same area, according to court documents.

The court ruled against the Chandler and in favor of Newburgh because Newburgh had an ordinance establishing a 4-mile rule, or boundary, and Chandler did not.

Huntertown has such an ordinance – Fort Wayne does not.

The decision is likely to be a significant factor weighing in favor of Huntertown becoming the chief supplier of water and sewer services to customers in an extended area outside its corporate limits, said Dave Hawk, attorney for Huntertown.

But City Utilities does not think Huntertown can be compared to the ruling in the Court of Appeals case, spokesman Frank Suarez said.

“Huntertown is a much different situation than Chandler and Newburgh. Both Chandler and Newburgh are systems that currently have the capabilities to serve customers immediately,” and Huntertown does not, he said.

In October, just weeks before the ruling, Huntertown Council members approved two ordinances outlining new utility planning and service areas several miles outside the town’s corporate limits.

City Utilities had a territory agreement with Huntertown regarding sewer services, but that agreement expired in April.

Chandler and Newburgh, both in Warrick County near Evansville, have for years been providing sewer services in the 4-mile rings outside their boundaries, and those areas somewhat overlap, according to the decision.

Chandler argued that Newburgh should not be allowed exclusivity because it sought to intervene in an Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission proceeding in which Chandler was seeking exclusive license for water service.

Newburgh argued that service should be “open and subject to customer service.”

Huntertown’s new 4-mile ruling stipulates the town as the exclusive provider of sewage and drinking water services within the service area, according to the ordinance.

Areas outside of Huntertown’s corporate limits to Coldwater Road, within the corporate boundaries of Fort Wayne or any customers served by Fort Wayne City Utilities – as of Oct. 23 for sewer and Oct. 7 for water – are exempt from the ordinance.

Hawk knew about the Court of Appeals case before Huntertown’s new service area ordinances were drafted.

“I started following the case once I saw the problem and saw a good solution for Huntertown,” Hawk said Tuesday. “This case is pretty much directly on point.”

Hawk was pleased with the decision, written by special Judge Randall Shepherd, former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court.

“The town has invested millions in a new water plant, which is dependent on a growing customer base,” Hawk said.

Huntertown is constructing a $1.8 million water filtration plant at Lima and Carroll roads, part of a $4.5 million project to improve the capacity and pressure of the town’s water system.

Meanwhile, Fort Wayne City Utilities has provided wholesale sanitary sewer services to the town of about 5,000 since 1988. That contract expired April 27, but City Utilities has continued to provide services without a contract.

Town officials want to build their own $11.2 million wastewater treatment plant, but the Indiana Department of Environmental Management turned down Huntertown’s request for a sewage plant permit about a year ago.

That’s why City Utilities thinks Huntertown will not be capable of providing services to the established areas.

But Huntertown has appealed, and a decision is pending.

“The state of Indiana has denied Huntertown’s request to build a sewage treatment plant, and the town is not able to serve the customers it is proposing to serve,” Suarez said. “As a result, Huntertown’s ordinance has already stopped development and growth projects in that high-demand area of Allen County.”

Suarez claims Huntertown’s ordinance has created development dead zones and is detrimental to economic development, job creation, Northwest Allen County Schools and those who want to invest in the Huntertown area of Allen County.

Several developers within the newly established areas are caught in the middle. Some have already requested City Utilities for subdivisions planned in northwest Allen County, but the Court of Appeals ruling seems to have negated their choice.

In spite of ongoing litigation, City Utilities remains committed to working with Huntertown to resolve the conflict, Suarez said.