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Ag rules get off to rocky start

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GREENFIELD — After 18 months of work, the Fortville operation that spurred the creation of new rules governing agribusinesses put Hancock County’s newest ordinance to the test this week.

Like the process of drafting the ordinance itself, the ordinance’s first hearing was not without some hiccups.

Rex Zenor, owner of Fortville’s Piney Acres, petitioned for a special exception for the county’s first Type 3 agribusiness at Thursday’s meeting of the Hancock County Board of Zoning Appeals.

The ordinance was drafted to give county officials guidance when considering proposals for businesses that operate on farms and are related to farming activities or unrelated activities designed to draw visitors to a farm.

Activities were classified into three categories: Type 1 activities that have minimal impact and are allowed by right on farms; Type 2 activities that could have a large impact on surrounding areas but are short-lived; and Type 3 agribusinesses, which are deemed to be those that are both long-term and have the potential for prolonged regional impact.

Zenor plans to operate a combination of all three types of businesses on his property, but only needs BZA approval for the Type 3 activities he has planned, such as operating an existing gem mine, holding meetings and receptions and allowing camping.

After nearly two hours of discussion, however, the petition was continued to next month’s meeting as a result of confusion on the part of the board, Zenor and several boisterous remonstrators over details of the new ordinance.

“It was difficult because it probably took a year to even come up with an ordinance that was something everyone felt was appropriate,” BZA President Dee Carmichael said Friday. “I think last night there were still some questions.”

Questions arose over how many types of agribusiness activities would be allowed on one property at the same time, but also how the BZA can regulate that activity when it only has jurisdiction over first-time approval for Type 3 activities.

“It would be nice to know how many agribusinesses are going to be operating all at one time,” said board member Jason Ratliff.

There were also questions about what kinds of information the board requires for approval. Zenor and his lawyer, Steve Elsbury, said they didn’t bring all of the information the board is now requesting because the ordinance’s vague language states that the board should consider size, scope and duration when approving a Type 3 agribusiness. While Zenor provided information on activities and hours, the board felt it needed more specifics before making a decision.

Zenor has waited more than a year for the ordinance and now is its guinea pig. It’s been a tough road, he said.

“It’s been more than challenging,” he said. “It’s been unnerving, because this is my livelihood.”

Complicating matters was the handful of neighbors opposed to the Piney Acres operation, many of whom fought tooth and nail to stop approval of the ordinance. Now that it’s taken effect, they expressed concerns both about Zenor and what the ordinance allows.

“Why should I have to live next to an amusement park?” asked Marilyn Goldfine, who was concerned about provisions in the ordinance that allow for gem mines and other activities not directly related to agriculture. The gem mine, for example, is an attraction that lets children pan like prospectors for stones in a stream.

Those in opposition also continued to protest language in the ordinance that allows the county planning director sole discretion in authorizing temporary Type 2 agribusiness permits.

But, as the board’s attorney, Gregg Morelock, made clear, concerns over what the ordinance allows are now moot as it has already been signed by the Hancock County Commissioners.

“You can argue all you want, but he has that discretion,” Morelock told remonstrators, who continued to argue after the hearing on Zenor’s petition was concluded. “If you don’t like it, you can appeal to the BZA.”

The Piney Acres petition will be heard again at the July 26 BZA meeting. Carmichael said he expects bumps along the road with the first several agribusiness petitions that come through.

“It’s going to be a challenge… ” he said. “We just want to make sure we’re doing it right.”

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