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Revealing its heavy hand

Huntertown brushes aside annexation best practices

Much has been written about the ongoing dispute between Huntertown and Fort Wayne concerning the provision of sanitary sewer service just outside Huntertown’s existing boundaries. Huntertown Town Council members have frequently and publicly complained about the difficulty they have had communicating with Fort Wayne.

At a recent public hearing on Huntertown’s proposed Twin Eagles annexation, the Town Council demonstrated that the difficulty in communication is not just one-sided.

In paying little more than lip service to the statutory requirement to hold a public hearing concerning the proposal, the council limited anyone willing to speak to two minutes. While this was not a concern for the two property owners who spoke in favor of the annexation or for the representatives of Northwest Allen County Schools who raised budgetary concerns regarding the annexation, it was strictly enforced against the developers of the Whisper Rock and Timber Ridge subdivisions, the two property owners most adversely affected by the proposed annexation.

Is this the level of cooperation and communication that can be expected if the annexation is eventually approved?

The council has freely admitted that it has made every attempt to make the annexation area as large as possible. In doing so, the council has attempted to capture two parcels of land, and the only parcels that lie south of Gump Road, that also are at the heart of the town’s ongoing sewer dispute with Fort Wayne. The developers of these parcels have been denied an opportunity to have their concerns heard in a public forum.

There are substantive flaws in Huntertown’s fiscal plan of annexation, one of the statutory prerequisites to a valid annexation, but the Town Council demonstrated little desire or willingness to entertain any meaningful discussion regarding those flaws. These flaws in the plan could be easily resolved by excluding the Whisper Rock and Timber Ridge subdivisions from the annexation area.

With only two minutes allotted for presentations, the Town Council heard very little evidence concerning the flaws in the plan or the possible solutions.

Simple issues that mandate a more careful analysis regarding the statutory subdivision requirement, statutory per capita requirement, statutory requirement that the town demonstrate equal treatment to the annexed area similar to services already being provided and, most obviously, statutory requirement to provide capital services within three years of the annexation are all issues Huntertown’s fiscal plan either glossed over, missed or, in some cases, outright misstated as to the facts. It makes one wonder why the annexation is so important, especially to the undeveloped land south of Gump Road?

Ironically, it was Fort Wayne that made both the development and annexation of the Twin Eagles and Willow Run subdivisions possible as a result of the prior sewage treatment agreement with Fort Wayne. Huntertown terminated that agreement with absolutely no ability then, today or in the future, to provide sanitary sewer service for itself. The development community only cares about providing immediately available, reliable and cost effective public sanitary sewer and water service to its lot owners. The only capable utility provider currently meeting these requirements is Fort Wayne City Utilities.

Huntertown brings to the table a proposed utility service that has yet to be approved, has yet to be permitted without appeal, has yet to be designed, has yet to be paid for and has yet to be put into the ground.

Yet, Huntertown’s Annexation Fiscal Plan boldly, and incorrectly, states that such service is available to these areas. Huntertown’s two-minute drill is merely confirmation that inclusion of Whisper Rock and Timber Ridge has nothing to do with good annexation policy but everything to do with attempting to leverage the private development community in Huntertown’s fight against Fort Wayne City Utilities.

It’s time the existing Huntertown Town Council reconsider its fondness for such heavy-handed tactics similar to the two-minute drill utilized at the annexation hearing. Huntertown has a rich and storied history of making headstrong decisions based solely on its quixotic quest to distance itself from Fort Wayne City Utilities and develop its own sanitary sewer treatment system. By now bringing the private development community into the controversy, Huntertown, once again, demonstrates that it is a town in need of new leadership, new thinking, new partnerships with the development community and a renewed confidence knowing that its identity is not shortchanged merely because Fort Wayne City Utilities allows the toilets to be flushed and the water to be turned on. Annexation can occur under that environment, if, and only if, Huntertown stops believing it can directly provide utility service to new residential development. It cannot – and no one even needs two minutes to realize that.

Josh Neal, a partner with Barrett & McNagny, is Legal Counsel for Twin Eagles Development II, LLC, and Chestnut Group, LLC. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.