By Zach Osowski
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — Lapel's annexation of 57 acres in 2013 didn't adhere to state law, a judge has decided, making the land grab invalid.
Hamilton County Judge J. Richard Campbell issued his ruling in the case of the city of Anderson against the town of Lapel. He denied Lapel’s motion that Anderson had no right to challenge the annexation of about 57 acres. Campbell also granted Anderson’s motion to declare the annexation illegal.
In his ruling Campbell noted that Anderson claimed the annexation was illegal because the move violated Indiana’s annexation ordinance, which states the new land must share at least one-eighth of a boundary with existing land. The land Lapel annexed was only one-eighty-third contiguous to Lapel’s existing land.
“In deciding Anderson’s standing,” Campbell wrote. “This court cannot ignore the illegality of Lapel’s actions. There is no question that Lapel did not comply with the one-eighth contiguity requirement.”
He went on to write that Lapel never defended its actions as being legal. The town’s only argument was that Anderson had no standing to challenge them because the annexation was “super-voluntary,” meaning all home owners in the annexed area wanted to be in Lapel, and the annexation was three miles away from Anderson city limits and outside the buffer zone.
Even if the annexation was illegal, Lapel’s claim was Anderson couldn’t challenge it either way. But Campbell ruled that under the Declaratory Judgment Act and the Home Rule Act the city of Anderson did have standing because Lapel’s annexation hampered the city’s ability to grow.
Future growth is something very important to Anderson Mayor Kevin Smith. He called the ruling a "breath of hope" for Anderson and its residents. He said the future of the city's interstate growth is now in the hands of the Anderson City Council.
"If Anderson doesn't take advantage of this opportunity, we are closing the door on our future," Smith said.
Campbell acknowledged the ability to annex is important to Anderson but not more important than it is to Lapel. But Anderson’s ability to grow should not be stopped by annexations that do not meet Indiana’s annexation requirements.
“Through annexation,” Campbell wrote. “Lapel has drawn a line that Anderson cannot cross if the annexation is immune from attack. One municipality cannot illegally annex land to the detriment of another municipality.”
Campbell said if he accepted Lapel's argument, municipalities could have free rein to abuse the system and box other cities in through super-voluntary annexations.
Therefore, Campbell ruled the annexation by Lapel null and void, Lapel’s annexation ordinance is invalid and the town is prohibited from taking any further action.
Thomas Beeman, representing Lapel, disagreed with Campbell's ruling. He said there was no precedent for the judge to rule in favor of Anderson.
"This decision ignores the clear language of the annexation statutes and all prior case law on annexation," Beeman said. "The judge has legislated from the bench and created a new exception to the law in this specific case."
He said Anderson's plans of annexing the area are nothing more than a "pipe dream" and said the homeowners in the affected area are united against joining Anderson.
Smith did not say if he expects the City Council to hold another hearing on a possible annexation. The council previously voted down the mayor's plan to annex the area in question. Council President Pamela Jones did not immediately respond to a phone call.
Beeman said Lapel has a right to appeal within 30 days of the ruling. He did not say whether the town will do that but he will be talking with the town's leaders.
Follow Zach Osowski on Twitter @Osowski_THB, or call 640-4847.
Timeline of events: The annexation battle of land along I-69 has been going on for some time. Feb. 2013: Mayor Smith unveils annexation plan. March 2013: Anderson City Council votes down Smith's plan. May 2013: Lapel officially annexes 57 acres southwest of Anderson Aug. 2013: Anderson sues Lapel claiming annexation is illegal Jan. 31, 2014: Judge Campbell hears oral arguments. Feb. 12, 2014: Judge Campbell rules in Anderson's favor.