Court ruling may aid Bethel’s annexation plans

A new ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court means that Bethel could be getting bigger soon. A lot bigger.

The village, which has been seeking annexation from surrounding property owners for years, is examining an apparent boon to their efforts that came from a March 29 decision from the Ohio Supreme Court. That boon was a decision making it possible for entities such as a village to force surrounding property owners to annex should they be serviced by utilities, such as water or electric, from that village.

“There is an annexation possibility ahead of us,” said Bethel Administrator Michael Shiverski. “As you may or may not know, the Ohio Supreme Court said that it was reasonable for a municipality that supports people with either water or electric who are out of their territory to give those property owners the choice to either annex into that municipality that serves them or find an alternate source for that utility.”

In effect, the choice for residents would be to annex or find another way to get power or water. The decision overturned years of thinking that said the opposite. Previously, it was against to law to use water or electric to force annexation.

“Traditionally, the supreme court has ruled that you couldn’t use water as leverage for annexation,” said Bethel Solicitor George Leicht. “To come out and say that it is perfectly reasonable to expect that people serviced by your water department to be within the village limits creates a whole new area. Our town has aggressively pursued annexation for a number of years, and we need to. That’s a critical factor for us. We’re talking five or 10 years, and we need to plan this.”

However, the supreme court decision is not, they said, a green light to proceed. According to a map of territory around Bethel that uses the village water distribution, the village could double or nearly triple in size should they move forward with their new-found ability.

“These people could be given the opportunity to either annex into the village or find another source for water,” said Shiverski. “We would grow to the north to the East Fork property.”

The idea is currently only an option to the village, but could become a reality in the coming years. The village expects opposition from the township over the matter. In fact, a Tate Township trustee would face annexation should the plan proceed.

Bethel also recently agreed to a 20 year contract to buy water from Tate Monroe Water. However, since the distribution would be through village pipes, the township residents would still be considered customers of the village.

“It supports the idea,” said Shiverski. “Whether we want to do that or not is a different story. They can choose to turn off their tap, that’s their option. The purpose of this is to inform the council and public of this possibility. That’s not saying that we’ll aggressively enforce it.”

Solicitor Leicht suggested a great deal of planning before pursuing the annexation. A good first step, he said, could be requiring only new residents to annex.

“I’d think we might pose this as steps, over the next five or 10 years where we could advise people,” said Leicht. “We can put an ordinance on the books saying that everyone serviced by our village will be required to annex. New owners coming in it could be required of.”

Should the effort be undertaken, Leicht said that the village could possibly attain city status, and quickly, with all of the new residents being added. Mayor Kevin Perkins, however, said that there are better ways to sell annexation.

“There are other ways we can sell annexation besides the forced-hand method,” said Perkins. “We could expedite zoning for developers and speed up the permitting process.”

Residents opting not to annex under the plan would be forced to pay a few thousand dollars in a tap-in fee from the township, plus the cost, per foot, of pipe being laid to their home. Also, there would be the issue of retaining right of way for the pipe, all of which would make finding a new source of water difficult or impossible for most residents.

Also, Shiverski said that the township and village had an agreement not to “step on each other’s toes” when it came to laying pipe, although the agreement didn’t appear to extend to using water service for annexation.

In other business: