1994 Hobart annexation still contentious

Move gave city coveted mall, left residents with mixed identity
2009-10-11T00:00:00Z 1994 Hobart annexation still contentiousDeborah Laverty - deborah.laverty@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2223 nwitimes.com

HOBART | Five years ago, Corey Smith said his wife, Helen, fell in love with the sturdy brick house and surrounding acreage that the family calls home.

Smith said he bought the property at his wife's insistence and soon fell in love with the area as well.

"It's the best move I ever made," he said.

Their home, a former school building, is located at Clay Street and Harms Road in a section of Ross Township the city of Hobart annexed 15 years ago.

Smith, who had lived on the South Side of Chicago, is oblivious to the volatile history of the annexation, which pitted residents in then-unincorporated Ross Township against the city.

The court battles between the two factions ended in March 1994, when the state Supreme Court ruled in Hobart's favor.

Former Hobart Mayor Margaret Kuchta, who pushed for the annexation, recalls the turbulent times when Ross Township residents opposed to the annexation picketed her house and City Hall.

"In retrospect, it was the right thing to do because Hobart was landlocked, and the only way we had to go was south. To grow we had to go south," Kuchta said.

The annexation gave Hobart control of nine square miles south of the city to U.S. 30, including what is now known as Westfield Southlake mall and the commercial corridor that sprung up around it.

Former Mayor Robert Malizzo, who opposed the annexation when he was sworn in as mayor in 1992, said he mistakenly got the title "mayor of the mall." He succeeded Kuchta, who was in office when the City Council passed the 1989 annexation ordinance.

"People thought I could stop it, but it was the council's decision. And I got labeled with it," Malizzo said.

Smith, like others living in the annexed area, said he was attracted to the area because of its "peacefulness and less hustle and bustle" than is found in a big city.

And, as one of the first black families to move into the area, he said he was pleasantly surprised by the warm acceptance of his neighbors, including an annual Neighbor's Day party.

"We're here to stay," Smith said.

Not all residents who are part of the annexed area are as happy as Smith.

Ed Ofiara, who has lived for 20 years in a house on the Hobart side of Mississippi Street just north of U.S. 30, said he hasn't seen much of an advantage since the annexation.

"City officials wanted the mall, and we residents were between them and the mall," Ofiara said.

He said his property taxes have gone up but the only new services he's received were city water, which he pays for, and road improvements.

Ofiara said residents of the annexed area continue to feel separate from Hobart because of their Merrillville mailing addresses and the fact that their children attend Merrillville schools.

"We're kind of like a boat lost in an ocean," Ofiara said.

Vaughn Froman, who has lived in his house on the south side of 73rd Avenue for 40 years, agrees with Ofiara about the city's true intentions.

"We all didn't want the annexation. All they wanted was the mall," Froman said.

Froman's acreage abuts the future site of the Silverstone Crossing development. And he's not pleased with that, even though it means he and other neighbors may be able to tap into a sewer main and get off current septic systems.

"Do you know what it will cost to run a line from my property to the development? I'm not sure if anyone will be able to afford it," Froman said.

City Councilman Jerry Herzog, D-1st, who lives in the annexed area and represents its residents, said both he and current Mayor Brian Snedecor are pushing to get sanitary sewers and recently held a public session with the Merrillville Conservancy District.

More than half of the annexed area still doesn't have sewers and city water, and Herzog would like that to change.

"One of my campaign promises was to make sure there is infrastructure," he said.

Herzog said he has not received negative comments since he took office nearly two years ago but he knows those feelings most likely still exist.

"There are people who will never change their mind," Herzog said.

Timeline of the battle between Ross Township and Hobart to annex nine square miles of Ross Township

July 1989: The Hobart City Council passes an ordinance to annex nine square miles of Ross Township, including what is now known as Westfield Southlake mall.

September 1989: Ross Township residents unite as Freedom Against Annexation to challenge Hobart's annexation in Lake Superior Court.

May 1990: The Hobart City Council re-approves the annexation ordinance after discovering then-Mayor Margaret Kuchta didn't sign the original ordinance the year before.

May to August 1990: The annexation trial begins before Lake Superior Court Judge James Richards. Richards rules against Hobart; Hobart appeals Richards' ruling to the Indiana Court of Appeals, where it is upheld; Hobart files with the Indiana Supreme Court.

January 1993: Hobart begins providing municipal services to the annexed area.

March 1994: The state Supreme Court rules in Hobart's favor.

The area annexed by Hobart includes a portion of land from Mississippi Street to a half-mile east of Grand Boulevard and from 61st Avenue south to the mall.

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