Property owners and real estate developers should be encouraged by a recent Supreme Court of Ohio case arising out of a annexation dispute. Annexations have become highly politicized, and this ruling, Smith v. Granville Township Board of Trustees, reaffirms the public policy favoring annexation and severely restricts the ability of county commissioners to deny landowners annexation petitions.
During the last 30 years, the annexation into municipalities of undeveloped township property has become a legal battleground for property owners and township trustees. Boards of county commissioners have found themselves caught in the middle of these disputes because they are authorized by state statute to approve annexations in part on the basis of whether they are for the general good of the annexation territory.
Despite a 1974 Ohio Supreme Court ruling that public policy favors the annexation of land into municipalities, county commissioners have increasingly misinterpreted what constitutes the general good of the annexation territory.
In Smith, a property owner sought to annex 281 acres of vacant land in Granville Township adjacent to the city of Newark in Licking County. The landowner sought annexation because Newark could provide city services such as water, sewer, and fire and police protection that the township could not.
What makes this case monumental is the issue on which the court rulings turned: the potential overcrowding of the local public school district.
Even though the property would be annexed into Newark, homes built on the land would have remained in the Granville School District. The Licking County Court of Appeals upheld the denial of the annexation petition based solely on the assertion that the annexation could result in overcrowding of the Granville School District.
The Ohio Supreme Court saw it differently. In one of the most important decisions regarding annexation to come from the high court, Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, writing for the majority, ruled county commissioners cannot consider potential school overcrowding in determining the merit of an annexation petition.
Justice Stratton noted the State Board of Education has exclusive authority over any school-related issues that arise due to annexation and could decide to readjust school boundaries. The spirit and purpose of the annexation laws of Ohio, she wrote, are to encourage annexation to municipalities and to give weight to the requests of property owners relative to the governmental subdivision in which they desire their property to be located.
Why is the Supreme Courts ruling so important?
In Ohios school funding climate, failure to overturn the Court of Appeals ruling might have opened up a dangerous Pandoras box of opposition to future annexation and sensible real estate development.
Instead, the Supreme Court ruling was a victory for the rights of property owners to determine the political subdivision in which their land will be developed. The Court reaffirmed the intent of Ohio law that a landowners choice of political subdivision in which his or her property is located can be overridden only in very limited circumstances.
The ruling also encourages township trustees to be flexible and to take steps to accommodate new development, rather than spend limited township resources on protracted legal battles with landowners over annexation.
Bruce L. Ingram and Duke W. Thomas are partners at the Columbus law office of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP. Vorys is one of the 100 largest law firms in the United States.