Judge says key ruling in Bloomington annexation case will come on Sept. 5

The shading on the map reflects a 1-dot-per-person plot based on the population of census blocks as measured in the 2020 decennial census.

After hearing oral arguments for a little more than one hour on Friday morning, judge Nathan Nikirk told attorneys for annexation remonstrators, and for the city of Bloomington, that he’d take their arguments under advisement.

Then he told them he would issue a ruling next Tuesday, the day after Labor Day.

That means on Sept. 5, Nikirk will answer this question: Should the standard annexation trial for Area 1A and Area 1B be put off—until a constitutional question about the status of annexation waivers is resolved?

[Updated Sept. 5 at 3:01 p.m. Nikirk granted the request by remonstrators for a stay on the trial. Here’s a link: Nikirk’s order on the motion.]

Remonstrators filed their lawsuit in March 2022.

Nikirk is the special judge appointed in the case. His home court is in Lawrence County, but the hearing on Friday morning was held at the Charlotte Zietlow Justice Center in downtown Bloomington.

The constitutional question is the subject of separate litigation initiated by the city of Bloomington.

Such waivers are legal documents signed by a property owner, giving up the right to remonstrate against annexation, in consideration of the ability to purchase sewer service from the city.

Based on a disqualification of several waivers—based on a 2019 law that invalidated all such waivers signed before July 1, 2003—remonstrators in Area 1A and Area 1B gathered enough signatures (more than 50 percent of landowners ) to force a judicial review of the city’s annexation. But they did not gather enough signatures (more than 65 percent of landowners) to stop the annexation outright.

If the 2019 law is found to violate Indiana’s constitution, then the remonstrators in Area 1A and Area 1B will have fallen short of the 50-percent threshold, and there would be no reason to hold the five-day trial that is currently set to start on Nov. 13.

If the city prevails in that other litigation, then none of the other five annexation areas, which under the 2019 law, will have gathered enough signatures to stop annexation. But two of the areas would still have more than 50 percent, which would force judicial review of those two annexations.

For the city’s lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the 2019 law, there’s a hearing set for Dec. 10 on the city’s motion for summary judgment, according to the case management plan.

What the remonstrators in Area 1A and Area 1B are seeking to put on hold is the standard trial that has to take place, if remonstrators gather signatures from between 50 and 65 percent of landowners.

When that standard trial takes place, the court is required to order the annexation to go forward, if certain objective conditions are met—and if the city is able to show that the annexation is in the best interest of the owners of land in the territory to be annexed. Among the conditions listed out in the statute is that the population density in a proposed annexation area is at least three people per acre. [IC 6-4-3-13]

That’s a sufficient, but not a necessary condition among the objective criteria. Other sufficient conditions are if 60 percent of the territory is subdivided, or if the territory is zoned for commercial, business, or industrial uses.

In addition to the objective criteria, some subjective criteria would need to be met. The other, more subjective criteria include whether the annexation would have a “significant financial impact” on property owners and whether the annexation would be in the “best interests of the owners of land in the territory.”

In front of Nikirk on Friday morning, Stephen Unger, with Bose McKinney & Evans, argued Bloomington’s side. Bloomington is against putting the scheduled Nov. 13 trial on hold until the constitutional question is resolved in the other lawsuit.

Unger talked about the “need to have a trial.” Collecting signatures from more than 50 percent of landowners gives the remonstrators a right to their “day in court” but “it is not is not a right to obstruct the annexation,” Unger said.

Unger said, “The remonstrators need to stop obstructing the city from completing this annexation.”

Part of the litigation strategy that Unger characterized as “obstruction” included an unsuccessful attempt by remonstrators to convince Nikirk that they had a right to additional time to gather signatures, based on the “pestilence” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arguing the side of the remonstrators were William Beggs and Ryan Heeb, with Bunger & Robertson. The key concept they hammered was “subject matter jurisdiction.”

The city of Bloomington had offered in its response to the remonstrators’ lawsuit the constitutional question as an affirmative defense, Beggs said.

After some back-and-forth between Beggs and Nikirk, Beggs eventually indicated the argument was not that Nikirk doesn’t currently have subject matter jurisdiction, but rather that Nikirk’s court would lose subject matter jurisdiction, once the constitutional question came into play.

Beggs said that if the city of Bloomington loses the trial on the merits of the annexations for Areas 1A and 1B, then Bloomington will then try to apply the outcome of the constitutional question, to render Nikirk’s ruling moot.

Beggs said it’s a better use of judicial resources, not to conduct a five-day trial, if it turns out that such a trial is not even needed. Otherwise put, if Bloomington prevails on the constitutional issue in the other lawsuit, then there is no need to conduct a five-day trial.

Nikirk did not seem persuaded by the argument based on the economy of judicial resources—because he gets paid to do the job, he said. But Nikirk did seem persuaded that the imposition of a five-day trial on the remonstrators could be considered burdensome, if that five-day trial were not even necessary.

Unger argued that the city of Bloomington would likely prevail at the annexation trial, even without prevailing on the constitutional question. So the city has the right to see the annexations for Area 1A and Area 1B go through—sooner than at the end of the couple of years that it might take to settle the constitutional question, he said.

Unger described to Nikirk how Bloomington mayor John Hamilton in 2017 took up the “charge” to say, “I’m going to right-size the city boundaries.”

Unger noted that Hamilton’s term comes to an end this year, and he chose not to run for re-election. “I think it’s important…that the mayor has the opportunity to have this remonstrance trial heard …before his term expires, while he is still the mayor of this city.”

The constitutional question in the other lawsuit centers on Article I, Section 24 of Indiana’s state constitution, which reads: “No ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, shall ever be passed.”

And Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution states, “No state shall … pass any … Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.”

In addition to its constitutional claims, Bloomington is saying that the 2017 start to the current annexation effort should factor into the application of the 2019 law. After Bloomington initiated its annexation effort, but before it was complete, in 2017 Indiana’s General Assembly passed a new law that had the effect of stopping Bloomington’s annexation effort.

That 2017 law was eventually found to be a violation of Indiana’s state constitution by a 3–2 vote of the Indiana Supreme Court.  The ruling came in late 2020.

7 thoughts on “Judge says key ruling in Bloomington annexation case will come on Sept. 5

  1. Judicial review is not automatic. Remonstrators have only 14 days after the Auditor’s certification to file a lawsuit requesting judicial review. 1A and 1B did that with the help of County Residents Against Annexation (CRAA). If the City prevails in the waiver cases, areas 4 and 5 would have missed their deadline to request judicial review. Finally, it should be emphatically noted that 1A obtained signatures from 72% of the property owners in that area. After certain signatures were disqualified by the Auditor, 1A is lacking only 59 signatures to obtain the 65% voiding standard. In other words, a super majority of people across the annexation areas and beyond oppose annexation. This is a matter of social justice in a community that claims to care about such things.

  2. Live in 1B and feel that spreading the city limits out past where services can reasonably be provided doesn’t help anyone. No remonstrance waiver ever existed on our property.

    Private trash/recycling services compete with each and keep costs competitive. Already pay for city water, plus a storm sewer charge when they don’t exist anywhere near our property.

    There are 5 separate police groups – IU, Monroe County, Bloomington, Ellettsville, and IN State Police – within the county. Feel pretty well covered when you see all 5 of them working IU sporting events and swarming the campus area during Little 500.

    Mostly sad that our massively underfunded public education system will take a hit with this money grab: https://www.heraldtimesonline.com/story/news/local/2021/07/26/bloomington-indiana-mccsc-monroe-county-schools-richland-bean-blossom-r-bb-proposed-annexation/8011990002/

    Nobody seems to want this but Hamilton and he knows he is unelectable after dragging the county in to this.

  3. Some of us do want annexation and believe that we are legally obligated to observe the conditions of the waivers. It’s a legal contract

    1. Would guess that you know you are firmly in the minority and it’s not like these people who signed water/sewer waivers in the early 1980s had much choice. The city has received 40+ years of payments from non-city residents so hope they reserved some of this money for upkeep.

      I clearly understand why the city would want to increase their tax base… More money to hire extra middle managers and add more traffic islands. Bloomington makes its most of its money on college student and their parents, and this group only cares about sales/hotel taxes.

      I cannot fathom why a Monroe county resident in any of these outlying areas would willingly want their taxes to double knowing the money goes to a bloated, nepotistic city government instead of educating kids. It is already expensive to live in Bloomington, but pricing out the people who work at local businesses just means more Airbnb rentals next door.

  4. “I think it’s important…that the mayor has the opportunity to have this remonstrance trial heard …before his term expires, while he is still the mayor of this city.”

    Really? I thought we had separated the person from the office in this country, i. e. it’s the office of the mayor who brings suit not the occupant of the office. Violating that principle for any occupant of the office is disturbing, but the idea of doing so for this particular Lord High Mayor – who cannot adequately staff the police and fire departments for the city at its current size – is particularly galling.

  5. I’ve lived in area 4 for almost 20 years. We have requested speed bumps on our 3 right angle, blind curves to slow traffic. We have requested signage to slow cars. We have requested that the gravel lane to our home be paved and always been met with indifference and disregard by the county. The sheriffs office can take more than 20 minutes to respond to calls in our area. We are the very last ones to be plowed in the winter. Our neighborhood has no curbs and very little sidewalk. Cory Lane is like a drag racing strip. Leaky septic systems drain into sink holes that feed the cave system beneath us. We have no say when unsightly developments spring up on the boundaries of our area. State law protects those in our area who are on fixed incomes from having their property taxes rise rapidly. We have never been annexed because the cost of bringing our neighborhood to city standard exceeds the property tax revenue that would result. We should have been annexed many, many years ago. Although I am in the minority, I’m more than ready to be annexed now.

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