Utilities

Municipalities battle over township: Greenwood opposes Bargersville annexation plans

September 15, 2008

BARGERSVILLE-This town of 2,500 has raised the ire of Greenwood leaders, daring to annex land close to the city's southern border and its sprawl of shopping centers.

It's been a long time in coming-since 1905 or thereabouts.

That's when the Illinois Central Railroad came through Bargersville, a burg created 55 years earlier in honor of local resident Jefferson Barger, and the heart of the town moved a half mile northwest to straddle the new tracks.

These days, trains still rumble through town. Barger's name (that's Bar-GRR, not Bar-JER) is still used in vain. And the town keeps marching northward.

But this move could be the most transformative yet for the Johnson County town as it faces the pressures of expansion, including growing infrastructure costs and bad blood from its muni-kin, Greenwood.

Last November, the Bargersville Town Council proposed annexing 3,360 acres, much of it along State Road 135 between Whiteland Road and Stones Crossing Road. After opposition and an election that produced a new roster of council members, that plan gave way to this year's proposal to annex 2,280 acres.

That's within a couple of miles of the southern limits of Greenwood, population 45,000, which earlier this month said it would file an injunction in county court to stop the annexation.

Like Bargersville, Greenwood has extended some utility services to unincorporated portions of White River Township.

Underlying this squabble is another issue: the desire by some of the 40,000 residents in that unincorporated area to join one town or the other. Although their independence means taxes are lower, they say roads and other basic services are lacking as a result.

Another alternative is also brewing. For the last two years, White River Citizens United has been seeking a consensus on whether residents in the area now commonly known as Center Grove want to incorporate on their own.

Getting its name from the schools in the area, Center Grove is an area between Whiteland Road to the south and Smith Valley Road to the north-farther north than what Bargersville is looking at annexing.

"Our taxes get spread around the county like peanut butter," said Anita Knowles, a leader of White River Citizens United.

Both Greenwood and Bargersville over the years have snapped up pieces of White River Township through annexation. But even though Bargersville's recent ambitions don't target the entire area, "the question is whether it hurts our chances of self-incorporation," Knowles said.

Municipal motivations

Annexation is often a politician's dream, given the additional clout and tax revenue it affords. To the casual observer, at least, it's hard to picture Bargersville's folksy, fiveperson council as being particularly ambitious as far as municipal empire-building- as perhaps might be the case among those city-slickers up the road in Greenwood.

The agenda for the Greenwood City Council's July meeting, for example, included eight annexation ordinances seeking to gobble up more than 780 acres surrounding the ever-expanding town.

Down in Bargersville, you could count the number of neckties worn at a recent Town Council meeting on one hand, and that included those in the audience. This is still a small town, one where council members fret openly about overgrown lawns and a deteriorating sign at a city facility that needs some sprucing up.

Indeed, town officials have said annexation is more a product of aligning Bargersville's borders with the expanding footprint of its water and sewer utilities. Utilities already have been extended to the commercially lucrative areas along S.R. 135, where new housing developments and smaller retail centers have sprung from farm fields.

"The service area of Bargersville utilities is substantially larger, and by some estimates could include a total population for all utilities of over 10,000 people," according to a report prepared for the town by Carmelbased Wabash Scientific Inc.

The town council's new president, Steve Welch, said the town with an annual budget of a wee $1 million has spent "millions and millions" of dollars in recent years on utility system improvements.

On the drawing board is a second water treatment facility estimated to cost $14 million, though engineers are now looking for ways to shave that.

Those improvements have gone to support a client base that's mostly outside town limits. Welch pointed proudly to a recent rating of water systems that ranked Bargersville high for some of the "purest and finest" water around.

"For 25 years, these [Bargersville] folks said, 'We're going to build a quality community and we're not going to make a fuss about it,'" said Michael Shaver, president of municipal planning firm Wabash Scientific.

Tension building

Whatever the town's motivations for annexation, the tension with Greenwood is building.

On Sept. 3, Greenwood council members asked the city attorney to file an injunction in county court seeking to stem Bargersville's latest annexation plans, saying White River Township residents need more time to ponder their future.

Just a few months earlier, the council received a report that claimed Greenwood would be a better fit for White River Township residents than Bargersville. It estimated that unincorporated residents joining Greenwood would see their taxes rise 13.3 percent, versus 14.3 percent if they became part of Bargersville.

The report also gave a peek at why Greenwood is interested in adding to its kingdom.

"If they become a part of Greenwood, there would be an approximate 20 percent reduction of the city tax rate," according to minutes of the July 21 meeting.

Bargersville needs the consent of at least 51 percent of property owners in an area to annex their land. Bargersville officials have said they have a majority needed for the proposed annexation, including some in the form of agreements property owners signed to receive utility service from Bargersville.

In those agreements, the property owners agree to waive their right to challenge future annexation, something Greenwood officials argue does not meet the test of consent.

During a Bargersville Town Council meeting Sept. 9, consultant Shaver showed images of those sewer service agreements signed by property owners, insisting they met the test of granting consent to future annexation and citing contract precedent to back up the town's positions.

"It authorizes the town to sign on behalf of the [property] owner" for annexation, Shaver told council members. "The town's cards are face up."

As of IBJ deadline, Greenwood still had not filed the injunction in Johnson County court.

Nicholas Kile, a partner of Indianapolis law firm Barnes & Thornburg, which is representing Bargersville, doesn't think a court has the jurisdiction at this point, noting Bargersville hasn't yet moved on the ordinance.

"It would be horribly premature to enjoin a town council from considering an ordinance," he said.

Sweetening the offer

Bargersville Town Council members have approved a measure to entice property owners with land zoned for agriculture use to agree to annexation, however. In return for their consent, the town agreed not to levy additional property taxes on those properties for 10 years, as long as the land is not developed.

Bargersville has a physical presence north of Stones Crossing Road already, in the form of a town water tower visible from Greenwood.

Meanwhile, as Greenwood and Bargersville "are duking it out," as Knowles puts it, White River Citizens United is trying to find a venue for a Sept. 22 public meeting where residents can discuss their options.

If residents decide they want to control their own destiny, rather than becoming a trophy for one of the municipalities, the price could be high. A previous study by Indiana University's Kelley School of Business estimated it could cost $40 million to incorporate White River Township and $20 million annually to operate it.

Knowles said her group also sees Bargersville and Greenwood looking next to the west, toward State Road 37, where the Interstate 69 expansion will be built and where lucrative commercial development likely will follow.
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