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Carmel board denies event variance request from Lucases

September 25, 2017

The parties are over.

The Carmel Board of Zoning Appeals on Monday night denied a variance request from Lucas Oil Products Inc. owners Forrest and Charlotte Lucas that would have allowed events such as charity fundraisers to continue on their property.

The Lucases have hosted gatherings on their West 116th Street estate since 2011—but with no special permitting or commercial zoning that a traditional event center would need. In addition to soirees benefiting not-for-profits, other events such as anniversary parties, birthday celebrations, political fundraisers and weddings have occurred on the estate.

Nearly 30 nearby residents have spoken publicly, written a letter or signed a petition opposing the request from the Lucases. Many neighbors have complained about the noise from events, lights from traffic, frequency of the parties, and frustration with the city allowing the Lucases to continue without proper approval for years.

City officials asked the Lucases to apply for the variances after a similar request from tech entrepreneur Scott Jones brought the issue to light. 

Jones, who lives in Hawaii now, filed a request last year to use his property at 1150 W. 116th St.—across the road from the Lucas property—as an events venue and a bed and breakfast. But he withdrew his petition earlier this year, after meeting unexpected resistance from the Board of Zoning Appeals.

After a more than two-hour hearing in August, the Board of Zoning Appeals delayed a decision on the Lucas estate until Monday.

The Lucases acquired their 33-acre property, which was formerly home to Conseco Inc. co-founder Stephen Hilbert, in 2010. And, in May 2016, they purchased the adjacent estate of Nancy Irsay, which brought their total property to more than 70 acres.

The Irsay tract included an 8,600-square-foot home and a 10,000-square-foot pole barn known as the Robert Irsay Pavilion, which the Lucases have been using for events.

As a part of the variance request, the Lucases included a list of commitments they would agree to, including limiting the number of events to 60 per year, restricting the time of the events and when the sound system would be shut off, and capping guest lists at 700 attendees.

“There are lots of really great properties in Carmel,” Tim Ochs, a partner with Ice Miller LLP who is representing the Lucases, said at Monday’s meeting. “But this is unique and one of a kind… If it can’t be used for this, it would be truly a waste for the community.”

Ochs offered several changes and additions to the commitments proposed in August. Most notably, the Lucases agreed to not have any weddings, anniversary parties, birthday gatherings, graduation celebrations, etc., on the property.

Previously, the commitments allowed up to eight weddings per year and did not specify restrictions for other parties.

The new commitments would have essentially limited the property to be used for charity events or political fundraisers, but Board of Zoning Appeals member Leo Dierckman said he wanted the events restricted to tax-exempt not-for-profits.

Dierckman also wanted to reduce the number of events to 39 per year. Board member Earlene Plavchak went one step further, suggesting the cap be 26 events per year.

Ochs said they would agree to 26 outdoor events per year, arguing the variance request only applied to the party barn—not the outdoor events—because outdoor events are already permitted in the existing zoning.

But John Molitor, the legal counsel for the Board of Zoning Appeals, disagreed with that interpretation. Molitor said residents can have people come to their property regularly for events, but they can’t have a catering business operating daily with visitors coming and going at all hours.

Dierckman said if the request only applied to the party barn, then the argument that the property is a beautiful asset that should be shared isn’t relevant because the barn is not on the original Lucas estate. The barn is on the former Irsay estate, and guests would be coming and going from Ditch Road, so they wouldn’t even see the Lucas property.

“The party barn is not unique,” Dierckman said. “The Irsay property is, frankly, not unique at all.”

Ochs also said he couldn’t commit to restricting events to only tax-exempt not-for-profits without further consulting with the Lucases. But the board opted to vote Monday night rather than postpone a decision.

“I don’t want to sit here and negotiate,” board president Alan Potasnik said.

The board split 2-3 on whether to approve the request, and even the two votes in favor of it came with conditions. Dierckman voted to approve it only if the Lucases agreed to only having 26 events per year indoor or outdoor and limited the gatherings to tax-exempt entities. Board member Tim Moehl was the other supportive vote, but he also wanted to limit usage to not-for-profits and align the Ditch Road entrance in a way so lights from vehicles would not shine into neighbors' homes.

Potasnik, Plavchak and James Hawkins voted against the variance.

Two residents spoke in favor of the request, while 16 spoke against it during the public hearing.

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