Environment and Economic Development

Home construction spreads growing pains into country: Shelbyville, county struggle with housing growth plan

February 6, 2006

Developers grabbed 286 permits to construct single-family residential units in 2005, up from 204 the year before, according to the Builders Association of Greater Indianapolis.

Shelbyville Mayor Scott Furgeson, whose city captured most of that growth, said his municipality issued only about 30 permits a year before 2004.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "I think people finally realize that Shelbyville is, I guess, reachable from anywhere."

A congestion-light commute to Indianapolis, acres of developable land and some tweaked building laws all have lured construction crews east down Interstate 74.

But they're bringing growing pains with them.

More than 100 residents showed up at public hearings last year to debate the massive Tillison Farms subdivision proposed for the county's northwest corner. Meanwhile, Shelby County officials are overhauling the county development plan with the goal of striking a balance between growth and retaining rural heritage.

"We've got a year of intensive study and discussion and debate in front of us yet before we even have an idea of what we will look like," said Doug Warnecke, one of Shelby County's three commissioners.

Meanwhile, the construction crews continue to build, primarily in Shelbyville, where about 40 percent of the county's 40,300 residents live.

Leading the pack

The city opened the door to more homes a couple of years ago by adjusting its zoning laws. Planners decided to allow developers to build homes on smaller lots as long as they included park-like green space in their subdivision.

They saw a swift response.

In 2004, C.P. Morgan opened its Central Park subdivision behind a Krogeranchored strip mall on the city's east side. This spring, work will begin on two more subdivisions that could add 610 homes, Furgeson said.

That means more trash pickup and road maintenance for Shelbyville crews, but Furgeson sees a bigger payoff long term.

"They always say [residential] rooftops will create more retail opportunities, and that's what we hope to see starting this spring and summer," he said.

Outside the city, a different mentality reigns.

Developer Tim Shrout looks at a plot of farmland in the northwest section of Shelby County and envisions a subdivision filled with hundreds of houses.

Nearby residents worry about traffic snarls, a strain on county resources and school systems, and a dense housing cluster that will drag down property values.

Shrout wants his Tillison Farms subdivision to straddle the Shelby-Marion County line. The president and part owner of Indianapolis-based Cedar Run Investment plans to build 327 homes on the Marion County side and 422 homes on about 100 acres in Shelby County, near the I-74 Pleasant View exit.

So far, he's attracted opposition from both sides of the border.

"It is too many houses; there's not infrastructure to support it," Marion County resident Cathy Burton said. "It is an assault on the environmental character of that area."

Shelby County resident Dave Fagel agrees.

"If you want to put some nice homes on acre lots or half-acre lots," he said. "I have no problem with that."

Fagel lives in a cement-and-steel, earthsheltered dome in the middle of the Tillison site. He said he's reached agreement with the developer to sell and move if the project ever begins.

Shrout chalks up the resistance to a group of not-in-my-back-yard activists who fail to understand that the county needs more homes to spur other economic development.

"If they don't want me to do what I'm good at doing, they ought to buy the property and put a park there to stop that," he said. "But other than that, they really shouldn't get involved with other people's rights to buy the property."

However, county leaders and residents say the issue is more complex than a develop-vs.-don't-develop debate.

Warnecke says the fight over Tillison is loaded with emotion and doesn't reflect overall development in the county. He noted that builders have started three smaller subdivisions the past few months.

Still, the issues raised by Tillison reflect broader questions about what makes the right mix of growth for Shelby County's future.

No one has the answer for that, yet.

Tussling over Tillison

Shelby County's three commissioners rejected a rezoning request that would have paved the way for Tillison last summer, mainly because there was no clear answer for how the development's sewer needs would be handled.

Shrout couldn't arrange a connection to the Marion County system, and Shelby County leaders didn't want him building a sewage treatment plant just for the subdivision.

He's put the project on hold while county officials wait for a study on the construction of a sewer system along the I-74 corridor. Shelbyville and Morristown have the only sewer systems in the county.

"That study will go a long way toward telling us what's possible, what people will accept, and what's affordable," Warnecke said.

The project awaits a hearing before the Marion County Metropolitan Development Commission for that side of the project.

In Shelby County, sewer needs are just one of the concerns county residents and leaders are wrestling over. Protecting their heritage is another.

The county used to limit new homes to five-acre plots of land. Then commissioners decided to require builders to preserve 20 acres of farmland whenever they developed on an acre of tillable soil.

Shelby County contains some of the best soil in central Indiana, land that's supported generations of farmers, Warnecke said.

It's land Gary Larkey wants to see preserved for children and grandchildren. Larkey lives on 40 acres a few miles away from the Tillison site.

"What we decide to do now will affect them 40 or 50 years down the road," he said.

Creating a vision

All county zoning laws are subject to change, thanks to a big-picture review that began in 2003.

County leaders and residents first came up with a vision statement for how they want their community to grow and develop. It calls for balanced growth that preserves the county's identity.

Last fall, they began a series of public hearings to figure out where people want to put that growth and how to update the county's comprehensive plan, said Amy Butcher, executive director of Shelby County's Planning Commission.

The idea is to give developers and residents a sense of what to build and where to build it.

That plan will lead to a new set of zoning laws the county plans to enact by the summer of 2007. The ultimate goal is a mix of rural and urban living, Warnecke said.

The county wants to find a theme that satisfies most of its residents, and the county commissioner believes he and his colleagues are making progress.

"I think we're there; we've got the outlines," he said. "We just have to color them in."
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