Cumberland hoping to close its gap: Town seeks to unify its sides with new zoning guidelines for historic U.S. 40 corridor

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Marion County’s sea of urban sprawl laps up to the town’s western border; subdivisions and cornfields snooze peacefully to the east, in Hancock County.

“It’s basically like a tale of two towns in one town,” said Cumberland’s planning and development administrator, Cory Wilson.

But Wilson and other community leaders are on the cusp of launching a plan to unify the town of 6,000 under a common, historic development theme for U.S. 40.

The new guidelines will apply to a corridor extending 1,000 feet north and south of the highway and stretching between German Church Road, in Marion County, to Mount Comfort Road in Hancock County.

The plan includes a landscaped median running down the center of the highway in the town’s old city limits-and architectural standards for new development along U.S. 40 in both counties.

On Nov. 22, the town council will conduct a public hearing on proposed zoning modifications for the U.S. 40 corridor in Hancock County.

Then, on Dec. 7, the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission is to vote on the town’s plan to create a historic district on most of the Marion County side of town.

Unlike on the Hancock County side, where the town has zoning authority, it needs the IHPC’s muscle in Marion County because most of the town was absorbed into the city/county under Unigov in 1970.

If the plan is approved by IHPC, the town will press common architectural themes, such as his- torically appropriate doors and building facades along U.S. 40. Among the guidelines is a restriction on business signs more than 6 feet tall-an aesthetic regulation familiar to those who live in parts of upscale Hamilton County.

As far as town officials can tell, their burb would be the first in Marion County to adopt design guidelines on such a scale. IHPC already enforces design guidelines in downtown historic neighborhoods and Woodruff Place and Irvington on the city’s east side.

“You can invest money knowing someone isn’t going to put a pink mobile home next door,” said Mark Reynold, a town councilman who started a grass-roots effort to rescue Cumberland in the late-1990s.

Residents were alarmed back then, when the Indiana Department of Transportation wanted to widen U.S. 40 through town. The plan would have mowed down several of the town’s ancient trees and would have upped the Richter scale intensity for businesses and homes fronting the busy highway.

“It would have been all over for the town,” Reynold said.

A sense of crisis was underscored at about the same time, when Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana then listed Cumberland as one of its 10 most-endangered landmarks.

Cumberland was named for a town in Maryland that was a passage for travelers headed west through the Appalachian Mountains. Indiana’s Cumberland served a gateway role on the prairie after it cropped up in 1831. “This was the stop-off for a lot of wagons going west that couldn’t quite make it to Indianapolis,” said Cumberland Town Manager Jeffrey Sheridan.

Like many towns along the National Road, prosperity waned after Interstate 70 was built in the 1960s and ’70s.

Property values were-and still are-flat or falling in the downtown. A number of commercial properties are vacant. Strip shopping centers encroached. Code enforcement was lacking.

“There were [business] signs that looked like a sixth-grader drew them,” added Reynold, a landscape architect.

“One of the things that kept coming up from the public was, ‘Where is Cumberland? Where does it start?’ We’ve [now] found identity through the historic National Road” plans, he said of U.S. 40/Washington Street.

Under the new plans, the town limits of Cumberland will stand out like Buckingham Palace plopped into the parking lot of Washington Square Mall.

Most dramatic: the grass and tree-lined median that will run down the middle of U.S. 40 from German Church Road to near Carroll Road-the county line.

The cost of the median project is $1.7 million, which comes mostly from a federal transportation enhancement grant. The town has already bonded its 20-percent match. Originally scheduled for construction next year, the median project has been pushed back to 2007 by the Indiana Department of Transportation.

On the Hancock County side, the proposed zoning amendment would require a frontage road be built by businesses that build along U.S. 40. That would reduce the number of new traffic lights needed on U.S. 40, Wilson said. Buildings also would have to be constructed with certain architectural details, such as varied facades rather than the monotonous, sterile stance of most big-box stores and warehouses.

Moreover, new buildings along U.S. 40 through town would put most of their parking in the rear-with fronts of buildings closer to the frontage road, in deference to Cumberland’s downtown.

Neither the town nor IHPC will have the authority to enforce the proposed standards for buildings on the extreme west side of town-from German Church to an area just east of the Meijer store. That one-third mile area is just outside the town’s old city limits and beyond the proposed IHPC historic zone.

But Wilson said he was encouraged when drug chain Walgreen said it would move from the front most of the parking for a store it plans for the southeast corner of U.S. 40 and German Church. Dairy Queen, which now occupies that site, will build a new restaurant just south of its current location.

Another new business coming to town, AutoZone, has also stated it will honor the proposed design guidelines when it builds a store next year at the current location of the Admiral Motel. Establishing such precedent gives town officials leverage in discussions with other businesses.

Meanwhile, work could start late next year on Cumberland’s “Pennsy Trail,” a recreational trail to be built atop an abandoned railroad bed that parallels U.S. 40 to the south. One reason Dairy Queen is going to move farther south is to gain customer access to the trail, Wilson said.

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