Residents protest business expansion

GREENFIELD — A crowd of Maxwell residents asked county officials to bar a local construction company owner from expanding his facilities, the latest development in an ongoing controversy between a northern Hancock County neighborhood and the business that sits in its backyard.

Representatives from Smith Projects, a Maxwell-based construction company owned by John Smith, came before the Hancock County Plan Commission Tuesday, requesting permission to turn an undeveloped 10-acre plot of the land that sits behind the business, located in the 5400 block of State Road 9, into a parking lot for construction equipment.

The land shares a property line with at least three homes in the Twin Oaks subdivision, and more than a dozen residents came to the meeting Tuesday to voice concerns that Smith Projects’ continued expansion will detract from property values and create eyesores and unwanted light and noise pollution.

Plan commission members were divided on how to handle the latest request from Smith, whose efforts to expand his operations in recent months have drawn the ire of neighbors every step of the way. After a lengthy debate, the plan commission voted 5-4 to give the project preliminary approval, sending it on to the Hancock County Commissioners to weigh the issue further.

The latest controversy centers on Smith’s plans to create a parking lot for construction materials and equipment.

Smith Projects owns a grassy 10-acre plot directly east of the company’s headquarters and south of Twin Oaks in Maxwell. The land is currently zoned for residential property. But company attorney Ron Pritzke of Greenfield asked the county to rezone the area for industrial use, giving the business the green light to use the property for outdoor storage.

The land would become a parking lot for backhoes, excavators and tractors, officials said. Piping, stones and other materials used in construction projects would also be stored on the land.

Twin Oaks resident Cindy Flick attended Tuesday’s plan commission and was dismayed by the outcome. She said neighbors have enjoyed looking out on a natural landscape for years, and they are disappointed that vista will soon be gone.

Flick, whose backyard shares a property line with the debated 10 acres, said she has little hope that the board of commissioners will deny the rezoning, despite the plan commission’s division on the matter.

“It’s ridiculous,” Flick said.

Tuesday’s meeting marks the third time in four months residents have flocked to a plan commission meeting to voice concerns about the construction company, saying that with each new development, their tranquil, wooded backyards give way to industry they say has become an eyesore.

Earlier this year, residents protested Smith Projects’ proposal to build a storage facility on 2.7 acres of company-owned land. After neighbors hired a lawyer, the company agreed to add 8-foot fencing around the new building, plant trees and preserve trees already in place to act as a buffer between the properties.

Tuesday, neighbors’ reservations were echoed by Mike Dale, executive director of the county’s planning and building departments, who recommended the commission turn down the rezoning request.

Smith Projects’ request does not fit into the county’s comprehensive plan, which guides development projects, Dale said. The type of industrial zoning classification the company seeks allows for larger-scale development than county officials intended for the business corridor along State Road 9 in Maxwell, he said.

Dale asked the commission to heed the residents requests, commenting that while economic growth and development is important to the county, the opinions of existing landowners should be valued as well.

“The existing property owners have invested their lives and their treasure to buy and maintain their land,” Dale said. “I strongly believe we need to take adjacent landowners into consideration when rezoning.”

Pritzke and John Molitor of Indianapolis, the attorney who represents the Twin Oaks homeowners, took turns arguing their clients’ position on the proposed development. After about an hour of back and forth, the commission narrowly approved the rezoning.

Members Tom Nigh, Michael Long, Bill Bolander, Byron Holden and Tom Stevens, who is also a county commissioner, voted to approve the project; members Jeannine Gray, Dan Craig, Wendy Ault and Dan Cameron voted against the rezoning.

The issue will be added to an agenda of an upcoming Hancock County Commissioners meeting. The date was not immediately announced.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.