Township wrestles with incorporation: As Greenwood, Bargersville annex commercial corridors, rest of township declines

September 17, 2007

White River Township in northwest Johnson County is dotted with an increasing number of high-priced homes and anchored by one of the area's strongest school districts.

But the area, known as Center Grove, also is marked by crumbling roads, poor drainage and an anemic parks system.

To preserve its strengths and shore up its growing weaknesses, some in the area think White River Township needs to incorporate into its own city.

The township of more than 40,000 residents faces the same dilemma as countless unincorporated areas throughout central Indiana. Fast-growing unincorporated areas often are an overwhelming challenge for county governments, which are accustomed to dealing with county roads and rural areas, not the infrastructure needed for sprawling subdivisions and burgeoning business corridors.

While some have been annexed by neighboring municipalities or have slid into decline because of crumbling infrastructure, others have opted for incorporation, as Avon did in 1995.

But the price of incorporation is significant, especially for an area the size of White River Township. A recent study by Indiana University's Kelley School of Business estimated it would cost $40 million in startup costs to create a city and $20 million annually to run it. Local residents likely would pay $1,000 to $4,000 more in property taxes per year to fund the city.

The township's residents appear to have the means to support incorporation.

White River Township's $62,000 median household income and $153,000 median property value place it far ahead of most of the rest of Johnson County. Its assessed valuation is even higher than the city of Greenwood.

The portion of the township's residents making more than $75,000 annually-16 percent-is higher than that of Shelby, Morgan, Hendricks, Marion and Hancock counties.

Without change, concluded the IU study, failing infrastructure means the township's assessed value could tumble. That, county officials say, makes this matter urgent.

"The first conclusion of this study is that there absolutely needs to be a change in the status quo," said Paul Friga, who led the study and is director of The Consulting Academy at the Kelley School. "Without a change, it's not a question of if property values will fall, but when."

And the window to incorporate is slamming shut, he said.

Greenwood has annexed areas along the eastern and northern borders of the township. And through annexation, Bargersville is advancing from the south. Friga said that if White River Township does nothing, it might end up part of those municipalities.

"I fear these annexations will rob White River Township of its unique character," Friga said.

He is not alone in his fear.

"As Greenwood and Bargersville continue to annex choice commercial development, White River Township will be an island of residential development with no tax base to support itself," said County Commissioner Mitch Ripley, who represents the area.

Without incorporation, Ripley said, the township lacks the organization needed to recruit businesses to the area that will bolster its tax base. That tax base will be crucial to build infrastructure, provide police and fire protection, give residents more nearby job opportunities, and enhance the area's quality of life.

A base of tax-paying businesses, Ripley said, is also key in lowering the tax burden of residents.

Yet Mike Watkins, a prominent real estate agent in the area, isn't necessarily sold on the idea and senses substantial opposition.

"What I hear right now, is, 'If it costs me, I'm not interested,'" Watkins said.

Time to act?

Incorporation doesn't happen overnight. State law calls for a series of public hearings. An organizing committee would have to gain the approval of the three-member county commission, in addition to the support of government officials in both Greenwood and Indianapolis. Landowners also could attempt to quash the move through a remonstrance process.

Friga said time is running out. He said that within 10 years, residential sprawl in White River Township will leave little room for a downtown or city administration buildings. The township also is running out of sites for the commercial development that would help generate the property taxes and other taxes needed to run a city.

Already, Greenwood has annexed expanses of choice commercial properties along State Road 135 stretching south from Fairview Road to near Stones Crossing Road. A few miles south of Stones Crossing Road, where the Welbourne Cos. has major development, Bargersville has begun its annexation march.

Eventually, either Greenwood or Bargersville probably will move to annex the commercial corridor along State Road 37 near the township's western boundary, Friga said.

The area along S.R. 37 is largely undeveloped, but the prospect of Interstate 69 extension along that corridor has developers salivating.

Greenwood Mayor Charles Henderson said that while annexing areas along S.R. 37 is enticing, he has no desire to take on 20-plus-year-old subdivisions in the township's interior that need massive repairs.

"We have to look at the fiscal impact to the rest of our citizenry," Henderson said. "Dealing with the road, drainage, curb and sidewalk issues they have there would be a big hit. There needs to be a cooperative effort between the county, Greenwood and Bargersville to bring this infrastructure up to standards. If it's not fixed, it could hurt a large part of the county."

Johnson County Councilwoman Anita Knowles has formed a group-White River Citizens United-to study the area's future and the merits of incorporation and annexation.

"There's one thing that most people agree on. We can't sit and do nothing," said Knowles, whose group hasn't yet taken positions.

White River Citizens United-which represents 15 White River Township homeowners' groups-has been studying the issues for 18 months. It plans to unveil its findings and recommendations within the next year.

"This is our No. 1 priority right now," Knowles said.

Making matters more urgent is the county's ongoing work on a comprehensive planning document, Knowles said. It is the first comprehensive plan since 1997, and Knowles would like a separate section addressing White River Township.

Citizen dissent

Several White River Township residents who attended a meeting held by Friga earlier this year to discuss his study voiced concern over higher taxes and increased bureaucracy if the area incorporates or is annexed.

Incorporation would raise taxes, Friga said, but it also would fund badly needed service for a township where the population has doubled in the last 20 years, and is projected to exceed 50,000 by 2012.

"It would allow the people of White River Township to take control of their own destiny," Friga said.

White River Township residents currently pay an astonishingly low property tax rate of $0.0089 per $100 of assessed valuation. Greenwood residents pay $0.5094 per $100 of assessed valuation.

"Yes, the residents would pay more taxes, but the level of services would go way up," Ripley said. "We are struggling as a county to provide services that an area the size of White River Township needs."

Because Greenwood residents pay higher taxes, that city each year gets $9,325 per mile to spend on road maintenance and upgrades. White River Township, meanwhile, gets $696 per mile.

Greenwood has 12 parks encompassing 200-plus acres with another under development. White River Township has a single, 13-acre park. Johnson County has 36 police officers to patrol all of unincorporated Johnson County. Greenwood alone has 42 police officers.

Watkins, the real estate agent with misgivings about incorporation, acknowledges that the township roads need work.

"This is a problem, especially in the upscale neighborhoods built 20 or so years ago like Tremont and Woodland Streams," Watkins said. "I can see where that might hurt property values."

Concern over cost

Indiana history books are filled with stories of areas incorporating themselves. For instance, Avon used a combination of private funds and tax money to become incorporated.

But there are few examples of areas as large as White River Township incorporating. Avon had just 6,000 residents when it did so.

"The thing you have to understand is that this area is so big, we'd be a secondclass city," said township Trustee Jay Marks, who also owns an area landscaping and auto parts business. "You'd have to have a clerk-treasurer, controller, an attorney, a seven-member council, a police department and street department."

Another complication is that utilities in Bargersville and Greenwood that already serve the township would be reluctant to give up territory, Marks said.

"The city of Center Grove, if that was created, has no money-making mechanisms," Marks added. "I'm not a politician, I'm a businessman, and I look at this like a business. It has to be self-sustaining."

Friga suggests selling low-interest municipal bonds as a means to raise the initial cash needed. Based on the area's $2.3 billion in assessed value, it would produce positive cash flow in six years, assuming the tax rate was similar to Greenwood's, according to IU's study.

A township resident owning property valued at $100,000 would pay about $510 every six months, compared with the $8.90 he or she now pays the township.

But, Friga stressed, incorporation isn't the only viable option.

"A very plausible solution is that Greenwood and Bargersville annex the area," Friga said. "That would improve services and give residents dedicated representation. My feeling is [township residents] feel independent of Greenwood and Bargersville and may resist that."
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