Newburgh is a town of 3,325 souls on the shore of the Ohio River in far southern Indiana. Chandler, population 2,887, is a 15-minute drive north. The tiny towns have been at war over the rights to serve sewer customers in a portion of Warrick County. Two days before Christmas, Newburgh won.
Writing for the Indiana Court of Appeals, special Judge Randall Shepard ruled that because Chandler had passed an ordinance establishing an exclusive four-mile service area around the town, and Newburgh had not, Chandler has exclusive rights to new customers in the areas in dispute.
Yes, careful reader, you’re right – Shepard is indeed the retired chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, where he was an expert on matters like this, so decisions he authors for the appeals court can be presumed to be pretty much the last word. And yes, all the way up here in northeastern Indiana, this decision has big implications. Let’s just say, if Huntertown were a cat, this opinion would be catnip.
There are differences between the dispute in southwest Indiana and Huntertown’s long-running shootout with Fort Wayne’s City Utilities. Both Chandler and Newburgh had functioning sewage treatment operations and both had long been serving customers in the areas where their four-mile extended borders overlapped.
Huntertown wants to have its own sewer operation, but right now it depends on City Utilities even for services within its borders, let alone within the approximately four-mile bubble that Huntertown asserted into existence last fall. On paper, it broke ties with City Utilities in April, but it does not have a plant to serve sewer customers, so the Fort Wayne operation is continuing to take Huntertown’s waste without a renewed contract.
In 2012, Huntertown’s plans to build its own plant were turned down by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, though the town is appealing that decision.
Town leaders carry on the fight because they believe that eventually, after all the legal bills are in and they get an environmentally sound site approved, they can bring sewer rates down for Huntertown residents.
Maybe so, maybe not. Projects like this have a way of costing more than they did on paper. And the decision elevates local developers within the four-mile limits to a new level of limbo.
Now comes Shepard’s opinion, which says, basically, that the law concerning these legislatively authorized four-mile zones is clear: Whoever claims the area first is entitled to serve it.
And Huntertown did claim the area, so it’s a ruling sure to encourage the town’s independent-minded leadership. But just because you can win a battle doesn’t mean you should.
The situation calls for compromise. Fortunately, the two sides are already in mediation. The outlines of a solution here are pretty clear.
For now at least, the town could work out a new contract to allow the regional operation to apply its expertise and economies of scale to continue serving the town as it does 15 other Allen County communities. Let the battlefield cool down and give developers a chance to move ahead without facing the uncertainty of whom they’ll be dealing with on sewer connections. City Utilities wants a 20-year contract. But it could offer a shorter pact with an eye to extending it, Huntertown could savor the moral victory and trust that City Utilities will come through with equitable rates. Those who dream only of septic independence for Huntertown can hope they’ll find a site that won’t be environmentally ruinous to a nearby river in the future. Meanwhile, everybody involved could get on with more productive concerns.