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CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Carmel's newest development craze?

August 21, 2006

What do you do if you own 40 acres smack dab in the middle of one of the hottest sections of Carmel; you are literally surrounded by cookiecutter subdivisions; and developers are swarming you with offers to buy your land at $100,000 an acre?

If you're Don and Judy Carter-Evans, you say "no thank you" and work with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to have threequarters of the acreage designated a Classified Wildlife Habitat.

The Carter-Evans property is on the southwest corner of 146th Street and Shelborne Road in Clay Township, a few miles north of my home. Known as Bear Creek Farm, it has been in Judy's family since the early 1960s. She has lived there about 15 years and remembers when Shelborne Road was gravel.

These days, she and Don are respectfully tending the land and watching the newly planted grasses, wildflowers and trees take hold on the 30-acre portion they've designated wildlife habitat under the state's program. For making this commitment, their annual taxes on the acreage in question fell to a dollar per acre.

But they didn't do it for the tax break.

They wanted to keep the property and were tired of leasing it out for farmers to grow corn and soybeans. The last thing they wanted to do was see it suburbanized like the thousands of acres of countryside and farmland in western Clay Township that have been bulldozed in the last decade.

"We're trying to create a habitat for the animals that have been displaced by all this development," Judy told me. "And, we wanted to give back."

At their invitation, I visited with the couple-"retired" and in their mid-60s-on a recent crisp morning when the sun was still low in the sky, burning through a layer of fog and reflecting off the dew and spider webs clinging to the vegetation.

Also on hand were Rick Peercy, a DNR wildlife biologist I'd spoken with by phone the day before, and Chris Torp, a district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both men have helped the couple with their plan and were there this day to assess the progress at Bear Creek Farm after the first six months under the program.

After signing up for a designated wildlife habitat, landowners receive assistance from people like Peercy and Tort at no charge and from outside contractors who specialize in things like prairie restoration. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a program that helps subsidize the cost of the plant material used.

Indiana's Classified Wildlife Habitat program has its roots in the Forest Reclassification Act of 1921, according to Peercy. Its goal is "to encourage landowners to develop, save and maintain quality wildlife habitat," according to DNR's Web site.

If you're interested, you can access a four-page document that explains the basics at www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/hunt/classified.pdf.

On this particular day, Don drove me around in a golf cart while he explained what had been planted and why.

"I always wondered what I'd do when I retired," he said. "Now I know."

A former Verizon executive, he's been working on this for three years. The planting didn't begin until last summer.

He and Judy, both of whom are active in managing the property, haven't known each other as long as Judy has been attached to the land. When they met, "things just clicked," Don said, and they've been married a few years. When they're not at Bear Creek, they spend part of the year at their place near Fort Myers, Fla.

The family homestead includes roughly five acres for their home and outbuildings, and five more acres where Judy's daughter, an accomplished horsewoman, lives with her family, some horses and a couple of beefy dogs. Because they've got buildings and people on them, these 10 acres aren't part of the program.

Right next door is the last piece of property adjacent to theirs that hasn't been bought by a residential developer. It's a 15-acre parcel whose fate they are intensely interested in. In fact, they'd love for someone of like mind to buy it and enroll in the Classified Wildlife Habitat program.

Any takers?



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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