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Westfield hopes to draw business farther north: New development could reduce residential tax rates

January 21, 2008

Back when they arrived in 1996, there were lots of open spaces and taxes were low, Jones said.

"Overall, it was a good place to live," he said.

Jones said he still loves living in Westfield, which is 20 miles north of Indianapolis. But he admits things are changing, which is a double-edged sword.

Eight years ago, according to the U.S. census, Westfield had just 9,300 people. Now, it's a rapidly growing city with a population of 24,000, an increase of more than 180 percent.

On the positive side, the number of sitdown restaurants has increased, especially on the southern border with Carmel. Yet the influx of new residents also has strained the schools-enrollment has doubled in the past 12 years, while the graduation rate has slipped 6 percent. And the costs for new schools and other infrastructure to support the growth have saddled residents with a tax rate that is among the highest in Hamilton County.

All of which brings Westfield to a crossroads. The community elected its first mayor last November, and converted from a town to a city on Jan. 1. The mayor, J. Andrew Cook, wants to encourage additional commercial development to balance the property tax rolls, while retaining the positive characteristics that attracted residents in the first place.

"The decisions we are making over the next four years will affect the city for decades to come," Cook said.

Five years ago, residential property made up 59 percent of the town's assessed value. Today, it's 72 percent.

"That's an unbalanced shift," said Cook, who formerly was president of the town council. "It puts the burden on the homeowner."

The good news for the mayor is that commercial developers are armed and ready, with plans for tens of millions of dollars in retail, office and other projects. Among the biggest is Lantern Commons, an $83 million lifestyle mall planned for 60 acres northeast of U.S. 31 and 161st Street. The 430,000-square-foot development, planned by Northbrook, Ill.-based Pine Tree Commercial Realty, will be only about 100,000 square feet smaller than Clay Terrace in Carmel.

Managing growth

Westfield traces its roots back to three Quakers from North Carolina who founded it in 1834. It is believed it was intended as a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom. It is one of the fastestgrowing communities in Hamilton County, which itself is the fastest-growing county in the state and the 18th-fastest-growing county in the country.

So far, Westfield has few of the problems

of larger cities. As of the last census, its

median household income was nearly

$53,000, compared with $44,000 statewide. Just 4 percent of the population lives in poverty.

In the last decade, Westfield's land mass has more than doubled through annexation, from 7.6 square miles to about 19 square miles, with most of the additional land west of U.S. 31.

Residents know more big changes are afoot.

"We have every reason to think positively about our future," former town councilman Mic Nead said.

But Nead said the mayor and newly elected city council must work to correct mistakes of the past, particularly with zoning issues.

"It was an anywhere, anytime attitude," he said concerning town approval for new businesses.

He said a perfect example is the intersection of U.S. 31 and State Road 32, which has three gas stations and a Taco Bell restaurant. Behind the restaurant is a Best Western Hotel, which sits beside a car repair shop.

"You look out of the hotel into a repair shop. That doesn't make sense," Nead said.

Attracting business

The city's new leaders don't want to do anything to discourage business. But they want to make sure development occurs in an orderly way.

Cook said the city needs to have a probusiness philosophy to help lighten the load on residential taxpayers.

Westfield's tax rate last year, at 33 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, actually was lower than Carmel's 43-cent rate. But including schools, the total rate was $2.52 per $100 of assessed value, while Carmel's was well under $2.

"My charge is to correct that," said Joe Plankis, Westfield's new director of economic development. His job is to attract businesses to Westfield, although he admits it might take incentives such as tax abatements to do it.

Westfield has lots of available land to develop. Other selling points are quality schools and a well-educated population. Less than 3 percent of the population has less than a high school education, compared with the state average of 18 percent.

"But we have yet to induce any major firms, those with 100 employees or more, to move to Westfield," said longtime resident and businessman Bob Peterson. "We basically are in our childhood years ... in attracting new firms when you compare us to Carmel or Zionsville."

Still, Westfield recently has landed some big projects other communities would covet.

In a 5-2 vote in December, the town council approved the Lantern Commons retail project. Workers could begin preparing the heavily wooded site this spring, with ground breaking later in the year.

Developer Barry Herring of Pine Tree Commercial has estimated the project will bring $270,000 a year in tax revenue, though some of that will go toward infrastructure improvements at and near the site.

The project was not without controversy. Nead pointed out that it will be only a mile and a half from Clay Terrace.

"That's why I opposed it," he said. Instead of holding out for a project Westfield needs, "we lost our patience and moved forward."

Another major project on the drawing board is Eagletown of Westfield, which calls for 1.7 million square feet of retail, restaurant, office and entertainment attractions north of State Road 32 and east of Eagletown Road. The 1,000-acre project, by Westfield-based Wilfong-Kreutz Land Development LLC, also would include as many as 3,000 homes, an elementary school and more than 200 acres of open space.

Farther north, a $300 million mixed-use development called Aurora would cover 315 acres south of State Road 38 and east of U.S. 31. The project, by locally based CR White Aurora LLC, calls for a business park, office space, retail space, and hundreds of condos and apartments.

Westfield had 3,600 housing units as of the 2000 census. Thanks to annexation and construction, it now has about 7,000, with another 11,000 planned or under construction.

Nead applauds the city's efforts to attract non-residential development, but said it will be a while before they pay off, correcting the overreliance on residential taxpayers.

For now, he said, "We are depending on nice houses paying lots of nice taxes."

Judge Jones, the longtime resident, said his major concern is that the new development not worsen congestion, which already has become a problem.

"There are so many housing developments and there are generally only two-lane roads," Jones said.

Several roadway projects in the works should help relieve the pressure. For example, plans call for turning U.S. 31 into a freeway from Interstate 465 through Westfield and all the way to the Indiana Toll Road in northern Indiana.

In addition, Cook said, the city is working with the Indiana Department of Transportation on plans to improve S.R. 32. A 1-1/2-mile span from U.S. 31 to Spring Mill Road will become four lanes within two years.

In the next eight years, plans call for widening S.R. 32 from U.S. 31 to downtown, which is three-quarters of a mile to the east.

"A lot of these [infrastructure] ideas are past the concept stage and are in some part of the construction stage," Cook said.
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