Neighbors of a proposed apartment and condominium project near Broad Ripple have filed a lawsuit in response to a city commission’s decision last month to preliminarily approve the developer’s request to rezone the land.
Four plaintiffs—Oxbow Estates Homeowners Association, Spirit Lake Co-owners Association and a pair of individuals with property abutting the project—filed suit late Friday in Marion County Superior Court.
The group opposes the $61 million Elements multifamily project planned by developers J.C. Hart Co. and Chase Development (both of which are named as defendants) to redevelop the Willows Event center at 6729 Westfield Blvd., into a 192-unit apartment community and 16 condominiums fronting Spirit Lake, north of Broad Ripple.
The original project, introduced in late 2021, was met with fierce resistance from neighboring property owners and others in the nearby Nora area. The developers ultimately withdrew the project in mid-2022. In mid-2023, the firms came back to the table with a modified plan, but have continued to face opposition from those living nearby, including some elected officials.
In addition to the developers, the lawsuit names as defendants property owner Evergreen LLC and the Metropolitan Development Commission, which voted 8-0 on Dec. 20 to approve the latest rezoning request.
That vote followed an hour-long public hearing during which representatives for J.C. Hart Co. and the homeowners associations traded interpretations of specific zoning issues, including traffic flow, building height and density, among others. Staff with the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development said in its report it was in favor of the project.
According to the lawsuit, the neighborhood groups and their co-petitioners—residents Thomas Durkin and Steve Yeager—allege the MDC voted in favor of the project having not considered specifics of a 2003 set of commitments for property around Spirit Lake, including at least a portion of the proposed development site.
Those commitments, which the developer has sought to have modified as part of its rezoning process, were created following the development of the Spirit Lake condominiums and limit density to 1.94 units per acre—well below what the proposal calls for now.
The petitioners allege a lack of consideration for those commitments “would violate their property rights” because those commitments can be enforced by any of the property owners within either two properties, or 660 feet, of land being considered for rezoning.
The lawsuit maintains that had the MDC considered the terms of those initial commitments, it would have quickly denied J.C. Hart Co. and Chase Development’s proposal.
Denying the request “was the only reasonable decision that the MDC could have reached,” the petition reads.
Aside from the lawsuit, the rezoning matter is expected to be considered for final adoption Feb. 5 by City-County Council. However, first-term council member Brienne Delaney, D-District 2, has told IBJ she will request the case be heard separately from other rezoning matters as part of an effort to reverse course on approval.
John Kautzman is an attorney and a representative for the Oxbow Estates neighborhood group. He said the lawsuit, which remonstrators of the project had 30 days to file, followed unsuccessful efforts both before and after the MDC’s decision to find a compromise with the developers.
“We came up on the 30th day and we had no choice but to file suit to preserve at least the ability to go forward with [legal action] if we can’t get this either worked out or reversed by the City-County Council,” he said.
Both the developer and the neighbors said they have made concessions in recent weeks to find a resolution. J.C. Hart Co. said it was willing to forego the condominium element and create two acres of green space in its place. It also would also remove access to the site from a neighboring private roadway at the request of nearby residents.
The new density number is a moderate change from a mid-2022 plan featuring three apartment buildings with 209 units and contains the same townhouse configuration. It is a significant reduction from the original proposal that was first floated in late 2021: a single 238-unit apartment building and nine townhouse buildings with 18 condominiums.
Neighbors, who believe the appropriate density according to city code would be closer to 40 to 45 total units, said they are willing to concede up to 144 units on the site, but have continued to ask for a reduced height to the apartment buildings and better traffic management along Westfield Boulevard.
An updated traffic study that was commissioned by the development team before it refiled the project determined the project would not adversely affect traffic flow along Westfield Boulevard.
Kautzman said while there remains an impasse on those issues, neighbors are still willing to discuss a remedy. He said the neighbors are “confident” the City-County Council will reverse the MDC’s decision.
“We didn’t say ‘Screw you guys, we’re not talking anymore,’” he said. “We just [affirmed] we had a deadline to preserve our claims and we met that deadline. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not willing to talk, because we still are.”
One of the largest points of contention for neighbors is the project includes the adjacent Spirit Lake in its density calculations. While city code allows developers to include areas such as lakes and ponds in determining density, Spirit Lake was already included in calculations for the Spirit Lake Condominiums when that project was built on the other side of the lake in 2002.
Considering the body of water, the project would use 21.4 acres for a density of fewer than 10 units per acre. Without Spirit Lake, the figure is closer to 26 units per acre, across about eight acres.
The county’s comprehensive plan generally calls for one to five units per acre for multifamily developments in the area. But the Marion County Land Use Plan Pattern Book also encourages higher density projects in areas of close proximity to greenways, such as the Monon Trail. Recent iterations of the proposal call for sidewalks and crosswalks as part of the project, as well as a connector path to the trail on the other side of Westfield Boulevard.
Delaney’s opposition to the project is a shift from the supportive position of now-former council member Keith Potts, whom she was elected to replace as representative for District 2. Also opposed to the project is Councilor John Barth, D-District 7, whose district includes a small portion of the neighborhood at the center of the controversy, as well as State Rep. Carey Hamilton, D-District 87, and State Sen. Fady Quaddora, D-District 30.
John Hart, chairman of J.C. Hart, called it “unfortunate” that remonstrators filed a lawsuit “rather than to respect the city’s land use approval process, especially after the remonstrators asked the district councillor to take the matter to the full City-County Council for a rehearing.”
“All relevant City agencies, including planners, engineers, the then-sitting district councillor, and the MDC, have determined that the project should move forward,” Hart said in an email. “By filing suit, the remonstrators demonstrate their lack of sincerity in reaching a viable resolution and their intention to ignore a favorable decision by the City-County Council. The remonstrator’s claims are meritless and are simply an attempt to delay a good project. This suit will be handled in due course through the court system. In the meantime, we hope the City-County Council will reject efforts to overturn the MDC’s unanimous favorable decision when the matter is considered on Feb. 5.”
The DMD declined to comment.