PAOLA — Miami County commissioners have denied a request by the city of Gardner to annex its water treatment plant located on Moonlight Road in Miami County.
A motion to approve the annexation request failed on a 2-3 vote Jan. 15, with commissioners Rob Roberts and Phil Dixon voting to approve the request, and commissioners Danny Gallagher, George Pretz and Tyler Vaughan voting against it.
At public hearings on Dec. 27 and Jan. 8, Gardner representatives reiterated the city’s position that annexing the 20-acre parcel where the water treatment plant is located would allow it to compress the construction schedule for a planned expansion of the plant.
Gardner purchased the Moonlight Road property in the 1990s and now would like to bring it under the city’s regulatory control as it prepares to expand the plant from the ability to treat 4 million gallons of water per day to 6 to 7 million gallons per day to keep up with the community’s population that has more than tripled since the plant was built in 1997. Gardner obtains its raw water from the Hillsdale Reservoir.
Gonzalo Garcia, the city’s utilities director, said the expansion fits on the existing 20-acre parcel owned by the city of Gardner.
The plant has operated for 20 years under a conditional-use permit issued by Miami County.
County commissioners were tasked with evaluating the request based on 14 criteria set forth under state statutes, but commissioners agreed most of the criteria had no bearing on this request. Commissioners focused their comments on No. 13 on the list regarding potential harm the annexation could have on the proposed area to be annexed and to the adjacent land.
Most landowners in the adjacent area have expressed verbal and written opposition to the annexation.
Commission Chair Roberts addressed the primary concerns raised by adjacent landowners, some of which included quality of life, property values, county oversight vs. city oversight, potential loss of revenue from fees associated with reviewing plans and permits, and possible future intrusions by the city of Gardner.
The city has operated the plant for 20 years with no known adverse impact on residents of the area, and Gardner has expressed no interest in annexing additional property, Roberts said.
According to the county appraiser and recent real estate sales, property throughout the region has been selling for 125 percent to 150 percent above market value, Roberts said.
“There is no evidence to show that the value (of the property) has been harmed, and there is no evidence to show anybody’s lifestyle has been changed,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the city has a right to request the annexation under state law, and after studying the evidence he concluded, “they have made the case to do so.”
Commissioner Dixon noted the annexation request got off to a rocky start.
“I think Gardner has to agree there were some very poor choices about how this project was presented to us, including starting construction ahead of time without any permits,” Dixon said. “After studying the 14 items, I personally cannot find any reason to deny this (request).”
All five commissioners at some point during the public hearings and other fact-finding discussions expressed their concerns about Gardner starting construction of the plant expansion without a permit.
“I found it very unfortunate that the first time I ever heard from a representative of Gardner was your lawyer telling us that we couldn’t do our jobs (at the first public hearing),” Vaughan said. “Not a good choice. Not a good setting to start this process.”
Vaughan said there was no precedent for a city annexing land in another county, and he said with the anticipated growth in the region he was not willing to give up control of the land, especially to a city outside Miami County. He also noted the opposition to the annexation voiced by the landowners in the region.
“The CUP has worked fine over the last 20 years, and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t continue to work fine,” Vaughan said.
Commissioner Gallagher also recognized concerns voiced by residents in the area and said if the annexation was approved the CUP would be transferred to the city of Gardner, which could change it without adjacent landowners having a voice in the proceedings.
“Gardner does not need to annex the land to expand their plant,” Gallagher said. “The expansion is being built in rural Miami County, so it only makes sense that as the expansion of the water plant is being built it is to the betterment of Miami County to know what is being built. I can’t say this strong enough that the more expert eyes looking at it the better.”
Commissioner Pretz said Gardner’s concerns that project inspections would not be completed in a timely manner if the annexation is not allowed are not valid because county staff and the county’s third-party inspector have stated they can do the inspections in a timely manner.
“I can’t find where Gardner would be injured if it is not annexed,” Pretz said.
He noted the CUP has been in place for a long time without any problems.
Although he was voting “no” to the annexation request, Pretz expressed support for the plant expansion — reiterating what the other four commissioners have said throughout the process that no one is objecting to the expansion, just the annexation.
“The bottom line is we want Gardner to have water, and we will work with you any way we can to help you,” Pretz said.