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Dispute over sports complex forces zoning changes

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HANCOCK COUNTY — Hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s standoff with the Indiana Bandits and their proposed athletic complex near Philadelphia, county planners have proposed revisions to the county’s zoning regulations.

The proposed amendments received a favorable recommendation this week from the Hancock County Area Plan Commission. The Hancock County Commissioners will consider them in May.

The changes tweak definitions to better define parks and recreational facilities and where they can be built. But the big change is to ensure review by county planners of proposed projects; and to be sure the public receives notice of such proposals.

“Hopefully, this will avoid some of the controversy that occurred with the Bandits,” county planning director Mike Dale told plan commission members. “What this would do is change the approval process and include provisions for public notice and public hearing.”

 Pat Haley, who lives on CR 250W, across the road from where the 35-acre complex would have been built up and who led the charge against the project, praised planners’ actions but urged commissioners to be even more precise in defining a park and recreational facility.

“My biggest concern is that we firmly define and split the definition of a park and a recreational facility, or we might end up right back where we were before,” Haley said.

The original definition of a park  included “athletic facilities.” The new definition includes “recreational facility” and “athletic fields.”

In addition to reworking definitions, the new ordinance would allow a park and recreational facility to be built in only four of the county’s most intensive-use zoning districts, ranging from the commercial regional designation that allows big-box type superstores to areas zoned for business parks and heavy industry.

Those areas are already suited for intensive uses and the attendant demands for infrastructure, traffic volume and lighting, planning officials said.

In all other county zoning districts, the new rules would allow a park and/or recreation facility only as a special exception, and that would require review by the county board of zoning appeals during a public hearing after public notice.

That’s where the Bandits controversy started last year.

In early 2013, the Indiana Bandits, a developmental youth baseball league, approached county planners with a proposal to build a complex of baseball fields and other athletic facilities south of U.S. 40 on the east side of CR 250W. The site is adjacent to the community of Spring Lake.

Because county land use regulations permitted parks, “including athletic facilities” as an allowable use at the location, planners approved the four-field complex.

No public hearing was necessary because the complex was a permitted use under the county’s code. Nearby property owners didn’t learn of the proposal until late in the process.

They quickly mobilized against the facility, citing increased traffic, environmental concerns and negative impact on nearby neighborhoods.

In August, the BZA sided with about 400 residents who appeared in opposition to the project and overturned the previous decision to approve the park.

The Bandits’ appeal of that decision was ultimately dismissed late last year, and the proposed athletic complex has been dropped.

Though the proposed amendments would not prohibit a park or recreational facility outright at a similarly zoned location, such a project would first have to be vetted by the BZA with public input and be subject to any conditions planners deemed appropriate.

However, commissioners and planners won’t know fully how the new provisions will perform until they are used in the future.

“We won’t know what to expect until these are tested down the road,” said County Commissioner Tom Stevens, who is also a member of the plan commission.

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