Almost as soon as the city of Kokomo began trying to annex outlying areas of the city last year, a petition campaign started among residents of those areas trying to stop the annexation. Last week, the remonstrators submitted rebuttals to signatures the city claimed were invalid.
West side opposition lawyer Alan Wilson says more than 2,500 signatures were submitted, of which 721 were rejected. The group was then faced with the task of rebutting those rebuttals – one written response for every signature deemed invalid.
To stop an annexation, Indiana law requires 65 percent of landowners in the affected area to sign remonstrance forms. Wilson says 68 percent of west side residents have signed the petition, but Mayor Greg Goodnight disagrees. He says even if all the signatures are accepted, they will fall short.
“Well, we believe our numbers are correct. Their attorney’s job is to try to hinder the process and to find legal arguments to keep the annexation from taking place. That’s his job so obviously he’s going to try to find legal discrepancies,” Goodnight says.
But Joni Novak, a leader of the opposition group, says she kept meticulous records.
“We evaluated the city’s list and for some reason they didn’t do diligence in matching the remonstrance forms with the waivers. I hate to come down to the city can’t count, but the city can’t count,” Novak says.
City attorney Derek Sublette, says complicated property law and different counting methods may be to blame for the discrepancy. Landowners are challenging the validity of waivers attached to the property, which prohibit residents or developers from resisting future annexation in exchange for receiving city services.
Wilson says many waivers were signed by developers who sold lots before agreeing to the waiver, later forcing lot owners to join the agreement. In effect, Wilson says, developers were signing away future rights for later buyers. He says Indiana law prevents future rights from being legally waived, with the exception of a contract regarding sewage services.
He contends that because this exception was not spelled out in the contract the waivers are invalid. Wilson also says some buyers signed titles without ever seeing a waiver.
But Mayor Goodnight says the process should go forward because state law refers to annexation as a process which should be used to accommodate growing areas.
“A lot of these neighborhoods should have probably been annexed twenty-five or thirty years ago. Some areas that we’re trying to annex are seventy-five to one hundred percent surrounded by the current city boundaries. A lot of this is playing catch up, trying to recapture these neighborhoods. You ask these people if they think they’re part of Kokomo, they would say yes. They’ve always been part of the community and they should be represented as such,” Goodnight says.
Opposition leader Joni Novak sees the reverse to be true, arguing the city is looking for a way to compensate cuts in property tax revenue. Novak says city leaders are misusing a law at citizens’ expense.
“I think this case is important because I think it counters the spirit of the annexation law in the way it was written. The annexation law was to help cities grow when cities were actually growing. And that was the spirit of the law for cities to be able to annex area and provide a service when a city was growing. As we all know, Kokomo isn’t growing,” Novak says.
The next scheduled court date for the case is September 29, but Sublette says city attorneys may seek an extension to analyze the remonstrators’ claims.