County vetoes anonymous complaints

Neighbors reporting problem properties now required to show identification

HANCOCK COUNTY — Neighbors complaining about a nearby property will first have to show ID verifying who they are and where they live under new rules county officials are putting in place.

The requirements were prompted by a group of neighbors that approached county officials with a similar problem. Each had tried to address a complaint made against their property only to learn the caller had used a fake name.

Soon, when residents want to report a problem with a neighbor’s property, they’ll have to visit the county’s zoning office, fill out a formal complaint and show a valid ID — a guideline aimed at cracking down on anonymous complaints. Those worried about sparking a neighborhood dispute may pass concerns along to their county commissioner, who may then complain on their behalf.

For the past few years, the county zoning office has required people to give a name when making complaints as a matter of public record and a way to hold people accountable for the grievances they report — but there’s been no effort to confirm identities.

The Hancock County Area Planning Commission put the new rules in place this week after a man told them someone complained about his neighbor’s property using his name; several other nearby neighbors reported similar incidents.

Jack Negley told the board he learned while vacationing a few months ago that someone filed a complaint with the zoning office about a side business his neighbor was running from their property. The caller identified himself as Negley, who was out of the country.

Negley said he never made the call; he’d never even met the man the complaint was launched against.

Negley said it was disturbing someone could use his name, and county officials did nothing to verify the person’s identity.

Janet Feeny, who lives in the same area, said last month, she received a letter notifying her that her family’s landscaping business could not operate on a property zoned as agriculture.

When she investigated who made the complaint, she learned the name given to the office was incomplete — just a first initial and last name.

For years, county officials have debated what information to require from residents making complaints. Should the county honor anonymous complaints? Should they require ID?

Watchful neighbors are the only way county officials learn of a possible violation; the zoning office doesn’t patrol the county searching for issues, said county planner Mike Dale.

His office has received flak for people giving false names, he said.

County commissioner Marc Huber, who also serves on the plan commission, said something has to change.

If neighbors are upset about the way a property looks or what business is being operated there, a drive into Greenfield to make a report isn’t too much to ask of residents, Huber said.

Those who don’t want to give their names for fear their neighbor might confront them may complain through their county commissioner, who will investigate the issue before passing it along to the zoning office, members decided.

Resident Rachel Nelson joined the group of residents asking for better accountability. She supports the change, saying she was required to ask for a special permit after someone complained about her three backyard chickens a few months ago.

Nelson said before getting the chickens, she talked with her neighbors to see if anyone was opposed to them. She didn’t realize at the time she wasn’t allowed to have chickens where she lives.

But a neighbor she hasn’t been able to find and has never met complained nearly a year after she brought the chickens home, she said.

Those making complaints she also may be required to detail how they’re affected by the violation they’re reporting — if the issue is spilling over onto their property, for example.

“I would appreciate that for the next person,” she said. “I think it would be a good idea for them to say where they live.”

Author photo
Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.