Students who live in certain major apartment complexes serving Purdue will be unable to vote in the West Lafayette municipal election this November.
In an annexation attempt prior to the 2013 ordinance which incorporated Purdue into the city of West Lafayette, property owners of the land that holds The Cottages on Lindberg and Village West refused to become an official part of the city. Both apartments are located on Lindberg Road, about two miles north of the Purdue campus.
Residents of the area are currently living in unincorporated territory, which means they are regarded as citizens of the county but not the city. As such, their participation is prohibited in the election of West Lafayette government officials, the likes of which include the city judge, the city clerk, city councilors and the mayor. Renters won’t be prohibited from casting votes during county, state or federal elections, as they’ll be included in voting districts established on a broader scale.
Village West was constructed nearly two decades ago by a company called Mida Development. The Cottages were built around 2010 by Trinitas Ventures, a real estate development company that previously managed both properties. Trinitas CEO Loren King said the previous property owners were worried about either the cost or adequacy of the provision of city utilities, namely sanitation, which led to the property remaining a part of the county. He added that Trinitas no longer has any affiliation with either of the properties.
City Attorney Eric Burns, who manages West Lafayette’s legal affairs and prepares city ordinances, said that owners of property being considered for annexation are often reluctant to pay additional taxes. By refusing to concede, the complexes avoided taxation at the municipal level.
Legal scholars define municipal annexation as the process by which a municipality can expand into surrounding territory by incorporating that territory into its legal boundaries. It’s a strategy often pursued by rapidly growing cities seeking control over their suburbs. It can also stem from a demand for municipal services, such as sanitation and water, that arises in areas that are unincorporated.
“When you do annexations, you like to do them voluntarily,” Burns said. “And when you do a voluntary annexation, you must have the consent, or at least the acquiescence, of the property owners.”
Burns recalled that over 80% of the property owners being considered for annexation were willing to comply with the ordinance. A problem arose, however, when two refused to be incorporated into the city. The process for involuntary annexation is much more complicated because of the legal battles that can ensue. Burns mentioned a small township outside of Fort Wayne that mounted a resistance to annexation that spanned several years, with “lawsuits flying all over the place.” He said the fiery response shifted the opinions of Indiana legislators to move toward reducing municipal power.
The city was unwilling to compromise its unwritten policy requiring the process to be consensual. But unanimous agreement is not necessary for the process to be legally voluntary.
Indiana state law allows for petitions to halt annexation if they’re signed by at least 65% of property owners — or owners of 75% of the assessed land value — in the proposed territory. Neither of those requirements were met, but an obscure state law prevented the city from carrying out the process without consideration for the dissenting owners.
The width of the property “is too narrow to comply with the state statute for annexation and for it to be a part of the same annexation,” Burns said. “That is a rule that is used to prevent cities from going out and capturing pieces of property remote from the city.”
Burns said the area containing the two apartment complexes was not discussed during the more salient 2013 annexation because Purdue was the primary focus. City councilor Nick DeBoer, who was preparing to succeed his District 1 predecessor as discussions transpired, agreed the council was preoccupied with Purdue.
“Pulling the University in as quickly as possible, with the least amount of legal fights possible, in order to kick the State Street project off was the overarching goal that we were pursuing,” DeBoer said.
Municipal elections in West Lafayette have historically been decided by thin margins, usually only several hundreds of votes. Data from Trinitas shows that The Cottages hold 745 rooms while Village West has 1,134. The 2013 Annexation was done in part to promote political representation for Purdue students, achieved through the creation of District 3. That district centers around residence halls on campus, where younger undergraduates are likely to live, but does not extend to off-campus housing alternatives.
The city council will redraw the political districts in 2020 because of a legal mandate requiring them to do so every 10 years, but annexation is an entirely separate process. The Cottages and Village West would not be incorporated into the city as a result of redistricting and Indiana state law requires property owners to initiate their own requests for annexation to occur. DeBoer said that since he assumed office in 2014, there have not been any new discussions of annexation among city councilors.
Purdue student and District 6 candidate Austin Bohlin was made aware of the issue but has not elevated it to be a major platform of his campaign. He did call the issue “troubling” and said he would like to pursue possible mechanisms for annexing the two complexes as a city councilor if he is triumphant in Tuesday’s election.
Given that the area is comprised mostly of students, he added, “I’d imagine they’d want to have somebody who is in their same exact position represent them, but a good chunk of them can’t even vote.”
Current District 6 city councilor Norris Wang did not respond to request for comment.
Bohlin added that neither The Avenue North nor The Avenue South, another major set of apartment complexes designed to accommodate Purdue students, is incorporated into the city of West Lafayette. The Avenue North and South are split by Sagamore Parkway, which is about two miles north of Lindberg Road. During early voting Friday at Krach Leadership Center, a student resident of The Avenue North was turned away and prevented from casting a vote.
“I am a little bothered,” said Dawson Reprogle, a freshman in the College of Engineering. “I do wish there was a little more information so I could have known that ahead of time.”
Adjacent complexes, such as Blackbird Farms and The Quarters, are incorporated into the city and thus allow students the opportunity to participate in municipal elections. The Lodge on the Trail and The Ivy Towns and Flats are two additional neighboring properties incorporated into the city’s sixth district. Their location on Cumberland Avenue is a mile north of Lindberg Road and therefore farther from the center of West Lafayette.