The Indignant Farm Bureau

 

With the 2015 legislative session of the Indiana General Assembly rapidly coming to a close, NUVO received the following letter to the editor from the Indiana Farm Bureau on April 22:

To the editor:

Indiana Farm Bureau and its members are not opposed to annexation when it is voluntary.  However, the forced annexation process that Indiana currently allows is heavily weighted in favor of cities and towns.  That is simply not fair.

If the leaders of a city or town decide that they want to annex an area and the landowners are not willing to be annexed, those landowners have two alternatives:  Give in, or take the town to court.

The lives of those landowners will change overnight.  They cannot imagine the amount of work or money needed to fight off an annexation. 

In order to challenge an annexation in court, those landowners have to determine which of their neighbors are in the annexation area, contact them and gather signatures on a petition.  And they have to raise money on their own to pay for an attorney. 

Even if landowners win the initial court battle, they will most likely spend years fighting because cities and towns almost always appeal, and they have the resources of government behind them.

It's just too hard, too time consuming and too expensive for ordinary citizens to fight off an annexation.  No citizen should be forced to go to court to protect his ordinary everyday rights as a landowner.

Senate Bill 330, which is currently making its way through the Indiana General Assembly, could change all that.  Indiana Farm Bureau urges state legislators to vote in favor of needed reforms that protect landowner rights in the annexation process.

Indiana is one of only two states that allow forced annexation.  It's time for us to join the rest of the country and stop forcing landowners to give in to the whims of city and town officials who make unsubstantiated claims about growth, progress and economic development.

Don Villwock

President, Indiana Farm Bureau

Well, now. How very chivalrous of the Farm Bureau, standing up for the little guy.

Why, one wonders, is the Indiana Farm Bureau getting its combines in a twist over SB 330? Smelling a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) somewhere off in the distance, we rang up Kim Ferraro, senior staff attorney and director of Water Policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Simply put, "This is all about allowing unfettered expansion of big agriculture here in Indiana," says Ferraro.

First, some background from Ferraro — stay with us, this gets a little wonky:

"There's a bunch of right-to-farm legislation that people get confused about. There was a state Constitutional amendment that got defeated this year — we know it'll come back next year. Then there's SB 249 — that one, in its original form, sought to eliminate home rule authority for local governments to regulate confined animal feeding operations; basically eliminating the ability of counties and municipalities to say no, a CAFO doesn't belong here. Local cities and towns and some of the lobby groups for local government pushed back hard against that to protect home rule, and so the bill was amended to require Purdue to do a study on the impact of local zoning laws and the ability of agriculture to thrive economically.

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"Last year, another bill that passed — SEA 186 — provides even further right-to-farm protections which basically says that the whole Indiana Code, including zoning law, has to be interpreted in such a way as to protect the rights of farmers and ranchers to use 'traditional and ever-changing technology in their farming practices. There's already protections [for big ag] — if a municipality says no, a CAFO doesn't belong here, the statute says no, you're supposed to interpret the law to favor big ag."

So what about this annexation business?

"This is all interrelated," explains Ferraro.

"Naturally, a city where people live — residential areas — would not be an appropriate place for a confined animal feeding operation," says Ferraro. "The way the law works currently ... these legal immunities apply if land is zoned for agriculture. For example, a person could raise row crops and then put 10,000 hogs on the [same] property, and under the right-to-farm act that wouldn't be considered a significant change in the use of the property. Right-to-farm would still apply."

SB 330 sets up a remonstrance petition procedure for local residents to stop annexation without going to court first. It also allows a municipality to exempt annexed property from tax liability while it is assessed as agricultural land instead of going through the hassle of rezoning it as such, with specified notification to the landowner of the action.

"If you remove the ability of cities to annex land that would presumably change it from ag to residential or commercial, you're slowly eating away at big ag's ability to do what it wants to do," says Ferraro.

Controlling the classification of land for use to promote growth or delay it, depending on the type of growth in question is not a new concept. But Ferraro says that is why the law is set up the way it is now.

"There was a bill out there that would prevent rezoning of land from ag to anything else. ... They want to limit the ability of cities to grow," says Ferraro. "There are arguments for and against that, but there's already a proper balance in the current law. A city can't necessarily force annexation; on the other hand, citizens who live in an area can come together and petition to be annexed. There are legal remedies for a court to get involved and decide whose interests need protection. It's not as clear-cut as the Farm Bureau would make it sound, that a city could just come in and annex whatever it wants. There's a procedural process to do that, the process has to be opened up to public hearings and receive input from impacted citizens — it's not just like a city gets to do whatever it wants."

The letter to the editor was written just a few days after a conference committee was appointed to review SB 330. The bill, authored by Sens. Phil Boots (R-Crawfordsville), Randy Head (R-Logansport), and Jim Buck (R-Kokomo) passed out of the Senate unaltered, but was altered in the House by an amendment proposed by Rep. Randy Truitt (R-West Lafayette).

Truitt's amendment intended to give some clarification through definitions on what constitutes "infrastructure" as the bill defined parameters for municipalities seeking annexation to pay back counties for the infrastructure accrued in the property acquisition. The amendment also spelled out specifics for local income tax distribution, territory definitions, and economic development projects.

The compromise reached by the conference committee passed unanimously out of the House 87-0 while the Senate approved it 43-6.

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