County planning director stepping down

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HANCOCK COUNTY – The official who’s led the county’s planning efforts for over 20 years is leaving the post for another job opportunity.

Mike Dale will wrap up his time as Hancock County planning director before starting as the new community and economic development director for Zionsville. His move comes at a critical time for planning in Hancock County as a surge in development continues and the adoption of a new long-range strategy nears.

Dale started as the county’s planning director in January 2002.

“I’ve been with Hancock County for 20 years, and it looked like an opportunity for me to launch into a different direction with my career,” he said of his new role. “And also an opportunity for Hancock County to get some new blood in the planning department.”

He noted the county is getting close to adopting a new comprehensive plan, a document designed to help guide officials who make decisions on land use, transportation and economic development.

“So in a way it’s kind of a new start for the county, and it just seems like the timing might be right,” Dale said.

A lot has happened in the planning department throughout his time there, including two comprehensive plans, the adoption of a new zoning code and zoning maps, new regulations for agribusiness, and other revamps and modernizations.

“And we’ve done this with a very small staff,” Dale said. “I’m incredibly impressed and thankful for the staff I have here. They’re hardworking, they know a lot, and they’re very dedicated and reliable.”

He’s grateful for his strong relationships with other county department heads, particularly highway engineer Gary Pool and surveyor Susan Bodkin.

“These three departments work very closely together to manage the growth, and I think the growth we’re seeing in the county, even though many people don’t agree with the industrial development in particular, I think we’ve done a very good job with managing the aesthetics of those projects, the drainage for those projects and roadway improvements that have been done and are still ongoing,” he said.

Plans for dozens of large buildings designed for logistics and distribution purposes have made their way through Dale’s office over the past several years, but now isn’t the only time he and his colleagues have been extremely busy. He recalls similar upswings before the Great Recession in 2007 and when he came onboard in 2002.

“Literally breaking a sweat running around trying to keep up with everything,” he recalled. “And that’s how it feels now, honestly … a lot of development pressure on the county and a lot of difficult decisions for our leadership.”

Michael Long has worked with Dale for about 10 years as a member of the Hancock County Area Plan Commission, which he currently serves as president. Long called Dale the example of county employee professionalism.

“He’s not political, he’s very by the book, and he does a great, great job on that level of professionalism,” Long said.

Part of the planning director’s job is to prepare reports and presentations to help guide the decisions of the county’s plan commission and board of zoning appeals, on which Long also serves.

“Mike has always done a really good job of making it pretty easy for the plan commission and the BZA to evaluate each case and each thing before it and make a quick and logical determination,” Long said. “He’s always been thorough in his work and staff reports.”

Bill Spalding, a Hancock County Commissioner who also serves on the plan commission, said he’s always found Dale knowledgeable and easy to work with.

“Whenever I would have any kind of question, he’d always take time to answer me, and not just because I was a commissioner, I think he does it with most people – he’ll take the time to explain whatever questions they may have, and he’s always been very professional when he does that.”

The planning director’s decades of experience with the county will be missed, Spalding continued.

“We are at this critical point, at least as Hancock County grows, and while I hate to lose the institutional knowledge, and it was unexpected, I still wish him the best where he lands,” Spalding said.

Dale’s last day with the county is Sept. 30.

Long said that he, other plan commission members and Dale have been working on updating the planning director’s job description with intentions of putting it to a vote at the commission’s next meeting on Tuesday. If approved, the job opening will be posted to various planning trade organizations before the commission starts vetting candidates.

Dale’s departure will follow that of former county deputy planning director Larry Strange, who started as the new Madison County planning director last month. That opening has been difficult to fill, as Dale reported to the Hancock County Council recently that weeks of advertising it through the National American Planning Association and its Indiana chapter drew no responses. In an effort to draw more candidates, the council agreed to add $10,000 to the deputy director’s salary, bringing the total to $68,000.

To help fill the gap left by Strange, Dale had been communicating with the Indianapolis office of GRW, an engineering and architectural firm, to provide planning services on a temporary contractual basis. The county commissioners have given their support for it but the county council would still need to do so.

Dale told the council earlier this month that GRW’s hourly rate would be $135 and the firm would help with permitting, plan reviews, presentations and staff reports.

Long said the plan commission intends to rely on GRW’s services for not only Strange’s absence, but now Dale’s as well until full-time replacements are secured.

“We’re going to kind of boost that up a bit and utilize them as certified planners to assist in the meantime,” he said.

He added longtime planning department employees Teri Sweet and Darla Smoak will be helpful in that regard as well.

“Teri and Darla’s institutional knowledge will be relied heavily upon overseeing that consultant planner,” he said.

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