An Indiana Senate committee has approved a controversial bill that would strip most of the zoning control for Marion County away from the city of Indianapolis.
Senate Bill 392, authored by Republican Sen. Mike Young of Indianapolis, would give each township in Marion County—except for Center Township—its own board of zoning appeals. Speedway, Lawrence, Beech Grove and Southport would also have zoning boards.
The city of Indianapolis Board of Zoning Appeals would be limited to oversight of properties within Center Township. If the bill becomes law, 13 zoning appeals boards would make land use decisions within Marion County.
That’s a dramatic shift from the current structure. Indianapolis has three divisions within its Board of Zoning Appeals, plus Lawrence, Beech Grove and Speedway each have a board that the Indianapolis Metropolitan Development Commission staffs.
The Indianapolis BZA divisions oversee the areas outside of Lawrence, Beech Grove and Speedway. Each division has five members appointed by the Metropolitan Development Commission, the mayor and the Indianapolis City-County Council.
Young said he’s trying to give the communities that are excluded from the Unigov structure in Indianapolis more control over developments. And, he said, the people who live in the communities where a zoning appeal has been filed should be the ones voting on the petition.
For example, a division of the Indianapolis Board of Zoning Appeals could include members from the east side of the city but make a decision about a project proposed on the west side of the city. Young said he wants to change that.
He said the townships and excluded cities would still be required to abide by the comprehensive zoning plan approved by the city of Indianapolis. That plan outlines acceptable land uses for different areas of the city and acts as a road map for future development. The Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development updated that plan in 2019.
“They have to follow the same rules, same procedures,” Young said. “They’re just asking that they get to appoint the variance boards.”
The township boards created under Young’s bill would have five members—three appointed by the township trustee and two appointed by the township board.
The boards for Speedway, Lawrence, Beech Grove and Southport would also have five members, all appointed by the city or town councils.
Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, questioned why Young couldn’t just file legislation to require each of the Indianapolis variance boards to have members from each of these communities instead of creating a new structure.
“Why not do that?” Taylor asked.
“Why not do this?” Young replied.
City officials say they had no idea the senator had a problem with the current board of zoning appeals structure.
Scarlett Martin, director of the Department of Metropolitan Development, said she thinks the bill “would create a fragmented, inconsistent approach to zoning and economic development, and the unintended consequence would be the loss of opportunities for all townships.”
Matt Pleasant, administrator of the Division of Current Planning for DMD, said it would stretch the city’s staff too thin, because theoretically, it would be expected to work with all of the new township variance boards.
“I’m not even sure logistically how this would play out,” Pleasant said. “I think there’s too many questions in the air.”
Officials from Speedway and Lawrence encouraged lawmakers to support the bill, because they believe it would give them more control over land use within their communities.
Katie Culp, president and CEO of KSM Location Advisors, said the bill would put Indianapolis at a competitive disadvantage for future economic development projects because it would complicate the approval process.
“It’s going to be one of the cons in the pros and cons list,” Culp said.
Culp said currently, a company can work directly with the Metropolitan Development Commission on zoning issues, plus tax abatements or other project incentives. If this bill became law, a company would have to seek zoning variances from one board and incentives from another.
“It would be another group that you have an uncertain outcome from,” Culp said. “Just because the MDC liked your abatement request doesn’t mean the Pike Township BZA is going to like your zoning request.”
Taylor said he’s tired of state lawmakers trying to take away control from the city of Indianapolis and urged the committee to defeat the bill.
“You’re going to have buildings that can be built that don’t comply with the master plan,” Taylor said. “This is just flat-out wrong.”
The Senate Local Government Committee passed the bill on a 6-4 vote on Thursday. It moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee for further consideration.