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Greenwood merger would create one of state's largest cities

September 19, 2009
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A merger Greenwood is eyeing with White River Township would create one of the largest suburban cities in the state.

Encompassing Center Grove and Smith Valley, the new city would count more than 80,000 residents. In terms of population, it would zoom past Fishers and Carmel to rank sixth or seventh in the state.

Affluent neighborhoods and shopping make greater Greenwood the south-side heavyweight. But at 47,740 residents, the city lacks the horsepower of its north-side peers, where population is pushing 70,000.

Unlike annexation, a merger completely reorganizes local government. White River Township’s advisory board and trustee would be eliminated, and other government offices would take over their duties. Taxes would be restructured. So would governing bodies.

If successful, Greenwood’s merger would be only the second since the Legislature passed the Government Modernization Act of 2006.

“Doing something like this is a major challenge,” IUPUI urban planning professor John Ottensmann said. “That’s why you don’t have scores of places around the state engaged in that.”

The town of Zionsville was the first municipality to take advantage of the merger option. In January, the town of 20,000 will join with Union and Eagle townships, adding 12,000 residents and 50 square miles.

The plan for a new Greenwood has been inching forward since January and could gain traction this fall. A first draft of the plan will be presented Sept. 21 to a joint meeting of the Greenwood Common Council and White River Township Advisory Board.

Proponents of the merger say it would finally bring city services to densely populated but unincorporated areas. A new Greenwood could leverage the larger population and tax base to create more recreational amenities, and possibly attract corporate offices and high-end retail.

The proposal also has its critics. Greenwood’s scrappy southern rival, the town of Bargersville, sees the merger as payback for its pending attempt to annex part of a commercial corridor, State Road 135.

Residents in the southern part of the township, who are not part of the disputed annexation, want no part of a merger with Greenwood. As a result, they requested annexation by the more rural town of Bargersville.

White River Township has simmered for years over the fate of its fast-growing suburbs. The grass-roots group White River Citizens United last year held a series of forums on the topic.

Should they remain unincorporated, form their own government, or join with Bargersville or Greenwood?

President Larry Hilkene said the status quo has left residents with little influence over the planning of strip malls that have sprung up around Greenwood.

“We think something needs to happen,” he said.

The citizens group capped its series of discussions with a survey.

“I don’t think there was a clear winner among the options on what the township should do,” Hilkene said.

The citizens group presented the options to Bargersville and Greenwood. Although some of its members are involved in the reorganization committee, Hilkene said the group hasn’t taken a stand on the matter.

“We’re still waiting to see what the final proposals are,” Hilkene said. “We don’t know what the tax rate would be. We don’t know what all the services offered would be.”

Detailed work

The Greenwood-White River Township merger must clear several hurdles. The reorganization committee must get its detailed plan approved by both Greenwood’s common council and the township board.

Once elected officials on both sides agree, the plan goes to voters as a ballot issue, possibly in May 2010. A simple majority of voters in each political subdivision must agree to the merger.

The decision might be simple, once voters see the numbers.

Taxes will go up for unincorporated areas, reorganization committee Chairman Pat Sherman said. But he believes the rate will be more affordable than if residents of the Center Grove area had created a municipality from scratch.

Sherman likens the situation to “more horses pulling the wagon,” in which case the real winner is Greenwood.

“Because the community is going to be larger,” he said, “we believe the tax rate for the city of Greenwood will be lower.”

Other details are starting to make their way out of six subcommittees. According to draft recommendations, Greenwood’s common council would grow from seven members to 11. Like Zionsville, the merged city would set up two taxing districts, one urban and one rural. The Greenwood Police Department, which has 57 officers, would require 17 more officers and four additional dispatchers.

Mark Messick, a township board member who lives in Greenwood, said the merger should result in a “more effective, more efficient” government. So far, he sees the committee proposing bigger and more numerous government functions.

Considering the recent Bargersville annexations, Messick said he might reject any plan that calls for merging areas south of Whiteland Road.

Southern township residents have made it clear they don’t want to be part of Greenwood, Messick said. “Do you really want somebody to be part of your town who doesn’t want to be?”

Old rivals

While subcommittees toil, Greenwood and Bargersville are squaring off over potentially valuable land.

The long-standing animosity reached a new height last year, when Greenwood sued to stop Bargersville from annexing 2,280 acres along State Road 135 north from Whiteland Road to Stones Crossing Road. The 1.9-square-mile area includes a Marsh Supermarket, plus about 2,000 residents.

The annexation falls within three miles of Greenwood’s limits, but Bargersville said it had obtained consent from more than 51 percent of the landowners. A Montgomery County judge is expected to rule on the dispute late this month.

Bargersville obtained the consent through sewer service agreements. Greenwood argues that form of consent doesn’t meet the legal test.

This year, Bargersville agreed to annex two more areas: 13 square miles in the southwest portion of the township that’s home to about 1,800 residents, and 1,100 acres in the southeast with about 40 residents.

In both cases, the residents asked to be added to Bargersville.

The southwest quadrant is another potentially lucrative tax base because it includes a stretch of State Road 37. The annexations would take effect Jan. 2, 2010, but there’s talk in Greenwood of asking a court to intervene.

Some merger proponents believe all annexations beginning after the study committee started its work should be frozen, Messick said.

Ottensmann at IUPUI said there’s no legal basis for halting annexations to make way for a merger. “You’d be trampling on the existing rights of municipalities.”

Nick Kile, a Barnes and Thornburg attorney who represents Bargersville, noted that 90 percent of households in southwest White River signed a petition for annexation to Bargersville. Considering the overwhelming number, he said, “I would hope the reorganization committee and the city would leave them alone.”

Bargersville Town Council President Steve Welch said the town, which also has about 8,000 water utility customers in White River, wanted to be involved in the merger planning.

“Bargersville has made a good-faith attempt from day one to talk to our neighbors,” he said.

Kile and a consultant to Bargersville, Mike Shaver, believe the disputed S.R. 135 annexation motivated the White River board and Greenwood to work together. They contend that Greenwood took on the merger so it could gain all the unincorporated areas without an expensive annexation battle.

Although 51 percent of township voters must approve a merger, Shaver said the number of voters in the northern half of the township would easily overwhelm the south.

“This is about Greenwood getting the rest of the township,” Shaver complained.

A merger gives local government flexibility, but it does not necessarily eliminate controversy, Ottensmann said.

“Those are the same things that come up in annexations,” he said. “It’s the kind of situation where not everybody’s going to be happy with what results.”•

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