City plan commission sends ‘no recommendation’ on proposed annexation

Republic file photo Columbus City Hall.

The Columbus Plan Commission voted to forward no recommendation to the city council on annexation of nearly 300 acres in eastern Bartholomew County for the purpose of a long-term future residential development.

The vote Wednesday night came after motions of favorable and unfavorable reccomendations that were deadlocked at 5-5.

The applicants, JOLI Development (Joseph W. Conner), Joshua Aciukewicz and Lenell Properties, LLC (John Whittington) are asking the city to annex 289 acres along State Street, from the current city limits near Fairview Drive southeast to County Road 250E in Columbus Township. Aciukewicz identified himself as Conner’s son-in-law. Part of the property is currently zoned as Agricultural Preferred, while the other is zoned Commerical: Community.

If approved, new housing would be built on approximately 64 acres already owned by the developers.

“The remaining acreage has been included in the annexation petition to satify Indiana law requirements for the contiguity of the annexation area with the existing city limits,” a planning department staff report reads.

State law requires that an area being annexed by the city must be at least 12.5% contiguous with current city limits. The property involved in this potential annexation is 18% continguous, thus satisfying that requirement.

All final decisions regarding annexation are made by the Columbus City Council.

Besides three-quarters of a mile of State Street, the proposed annexation includes a fifth-of-a-mile of County Road 100S and a half-mile of County Road 250E. A total of 1.4 miles of additional roads will be annexed if the proposal is ultimately approved.

City-County Planning Director Jeff Bergman said his department has been aware of the applicants interest in annexing and developing the land since 2016.

The proposal includes annexing properties owned by Clifty Creek Farm, LLC and Mark Rediker, who are not petitioners. At the meeting, they expressed their opposition to being annexed, the proposed development and the means by which the applicants went about seeking the annexation. The applicants said that were simply operating under the guise of state law.

The prelimary recommendation by planning department staff was favorable based upon policies regarding annexation the council passed in 1990.

Two decision criteria in particular were germane to this particular property in reaching the preliminary favorable reccomendation, Associate Planner Andres Nieto said:

  • “Undeveloped land required to complement the annexation of developed land and which helps the provided the ability to manage growth should be apart of the City.”
  • “The pattern of City boundaires should promote efficient provision of services by the City, the County and other agencies.”

There are three types of annexation — super-voluntary, voluntary and involuntary, Bergman said. Super-voluntary annexations require a petition to have signatures of 100% of the property owners in an area to be annexed. Voluntary annexations are when 51% of the property owners in an area agree to be annexed and involuntary annexation is done by the city and not the property owners. In this case, it would be considered a voluntary annexation because the area includes five property owners: Conner, Aciukewicz, Lentell, Clifty Creek Farm, LLC and Rediker, with the first three owners agreeing to be annexed, giving them the necessary 51%.

Commissioner Laura Garrett asked Bergman if there was another example in distant past where an annexation of this particular type took place in the city.

“I’m not aware of the city receiving a petition for this type of annexation in quite some time,” Bergman said.

There are, however, instances of the city growing around non-city areas, Bergman continued.

“We have a number of examples of the city limits, kind of wrapping around, you know if we think about (County Road) 200S, there’s pockets of county amongst city developments.”

Commissioner Barry Kastner was concerned about the trickle-down effect the annexation could enact.

“The concern I have about this project is not so much the properties that have been presented to us, but what follows after they’re annexed,” Kastner said. “You’d have lots of opportunity for petitioners to annex into the city, and this essentially creates sprawl to the east of the Lentell property to the south.”

“I think there’s been an interest by the city council in removing barriers to annexation and trying to not have an impact or take something away from agricultural properties that become annexed for one reason or another,” Bergman said.

Bergman said that long-term, the onus would be on the plan commission and city council to ensure that there is more dense development through future zoning requests.

“Seems to me we’re opening up this enormous area to development that we’re not thinking through yet,” Kastner said.

The property was identifed in a 2017 Columbus strategic growth study as being an area the city could expand to and as having development potential.

“That study looked outside of the city limits and basically created an overlay of the factors that were necessary for city growth,” Bergman said. “What it tried to do was identify those areas that have the fewest constraints in there for likely developing sites in the mid-term.”

“I should probably note that the one factor the study couldn’t analyze was the desires of the property owners, which is a huge determinant in whether property gets developed or not,” Bergman later said.

JOLI Development Owner Joseph Conner said the area is prime space to develop and he decided to move forward seeking the annexation of this property when the city council passed an amendment to an ordinance last year that would allow people who are being annexed to maintain their county status should they choose to.

“This area has excellent access to State Street. Well, State Street is a TIF district and if you want to increase the business in the TIF area, then you’ve got to have more people getting to there easily and it’s a straight shot into that whole TIF District from here. So we feel like this is an area that would greatly benefit Columbus,” Conner said. “If these people who are quote surrounded by this wish to become (a part) of the city, they can petition them as an individual petitioner, they will get in basically automatically. And if they wish to remain in the county and not partake in city services, enhanced fire protection, city utilities, then they can, on their own decision, stay within the county.”

During the public hearing portion, Mark Rediker pushed back on Conner, saying that sometime in the future the city council could change the ordinance allowing them to maintain county status at any time.

“This property has been in my family since 1929, I want to pass it off,” Rediker said. “I know there’s a lot of neighbors that I’ve talked to that are against this development.”

Rediker said that Conner and Whittington had already tried to purchase the property off his mother.

“They’re going to come in and develop it, they’re going to leave and we’re going to be stuck with that in the future. We want to keep it the way it’s been,” Rediker continued.

Clifty Creek Farm, LLC’s Judy Pitman said the annexation wouldn’t offer them much of anything and would only change the character of an area her family and neighbors cherish.

“So what’s the benefit to us? I can’t really see anything, honestly. In fact, I talked with Jeff and he couldn’t come up with the pro either for us,” Pitman said. “Do I want State Street to look like 46 West looks? No. Fast food, mattress shops, big box shops, stoplights? No, I don’t want it to look like that, I want to see green spaces, I don’t only want to see cement and asphalt neon signs.”

Pitman and others from the public also voiced concern about the current traffic situation on State Street and the number of accidents they already see. Many believed the development would only exacerbate that.

“When I think about people coming out of (the) JOLI Development and turning left onto there, it’s not going to be easy,” Pitman said.

When commissioners came to vote, the first two motions of unfavorable and favorable reccomendations failed after being split 5-5. Commissioner Zach Ellison was not present for the meeting. The third motion of no recommendation was passed 8-2 with commisioners Kastner and Dennis Baute voting no.

The matter now heads towards the council, Bergman said.

“The next step would then be the introduction before the city council. Following that a formal public hearing will be scheduled before the city council, where the property owners involved in the annexation have an opportunity to share thoughts on the topic, and then there’ll be a separte meeting where the city council will vote on that next session.”

Bergman said that while property owners involved can’t automatically stop an annexation by indicating an objection to it, there is a formal remonstrance process when they would have an opportunity to take the matter to court to attempt to potentially block it.

The JOLI annexation has not yet been scheduled at city council, Bergman told The Republic.