HANCOCK COUNTY – Planning authorities gave their support to a guiding document for the county’s future despite a late push for a pause from a state legislator and influential members of the agricultural sector.
The Hancock County Area Plan Commission voted unanimously earlier this week to give the county’s new comprehensive plan a favorable recommendation. It now heads to the Hancock County Commissioners, Shirley Town Council and Spring Lake Town Council for their respective adoptions.
The updated plan culminates a $250,000 effort over a year in the making guided by a consulting firm, local steering committee and public feedback. At over 200 pages, officials will use the document to help guide development over the next 20 years. The new comprehensive plan also includes a thoroughfare plan and economic development strategy. It would replace the county’s current plan, which has been in place since 2005 and had an in-house update in 2012.
At the plan commission’s meeting this week, commission president Michael Long referred to correspondence submitted the day before by Indiana Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield; Jonathan Sparks, a Hancock County farmer, district director for the Indiana Farm Bureau and member of the comprehensive plan’s steering committee; and Danielle Hunt, chairperson of the Hancock County Farm Bureau Young Farmers and AG Professionals.
The correspondence suggests details of the draft comprehensive plan contradict a stated guiding principle of preserving the county’s agricultural heritage. Cherry, Sparks and Hunt also ask leaders to wait on considering adoption of the plan until a new county planning director is hired. Mike Dale, the county’s former planning director, recently stepped down to become Zionsville’s community and economic development director.
Sparks wrote that his goals while serving on the comprehensive plan’s steering committee were to keep development in the county in areas currently being developed and improve infrastructure in areas being developed to allow for agriculture to continue among its new neighbors and increased traffic.
“At this point I do not feel good about how I was able to impact either goal in the current plan,” Sparks wrote.
He added that the comprehensive plan’s land use plan would remove about 65% of the land in the county from agriculture to another use. Sparks wrote that while he recognizes some of the changes projected by the document are inevitable due to the county’s proximity to a major metropolitan area, “This plan seems way more aggressive than would be prudent for the citizens of our county.”
Hunt’s letter notes that the comprehensive plan identifies nearly 150,000 acres of agricultural land currently in the county. In a future land use map in the plan, that number drops to just over 92,000 acres, over 26,000 of which are designated as future growth areas, dropping the total further to about 65,000.
Scott Harrington, principal planner for Vandewalle & Associates, the firm the county hired to assist with the comprehensive plan, said in an email to Long that the projected acreage of future growth areas are not expected to develop in the 20-year period covered by the draft comprehensive plan, and that it may be decades beyond that if they ever would.
Harrington added the plan lists several factors the county must consider before amending it to allow something other than agriculture in future growth areas, likely further preserving their futures as agricultural.
He also wrote uses reflected in the existing land use map are assigned by the county assessor and typically reflect properties’ predominant land uses. The draft plan’s future land use section identifies a category labeled conservation/open space, Harrington continued, some of which is currently agricultural.
Harrington goes on to state that there are extensive agricultural areas in the county zoned for a different use following the adoption of the last comprehensive plan. The new plan recommends against this policy of proactive zoning, but rather considering rezoning as it’s proposed by property owners and developers prior to actual development.
Long asked steering committee co-chairs Jack Parker, superintendent of Mt. Vernon schools; and Mary Gibble, president and CEO of the Hancock County Community Foundation, to weigh in on the feedback from Sparks, Hunt and Cherry.
Parker said he recalled conversations about agricultural land use in the county and how preserving it as the county grows was an important part of drafting the plan.
“We didn’t have anything in our committee that caused great concern, from my recollection, of agriculture because we were focusing on continuing that history in our county,” he said.
Gibble said Sparks’ input throughout the process was valued and that the steering committee heard from an agriculture focus group as well, adding she feels the plan reflects that feedback. She and Long expressed surprise over the timing of the correspondence as well, as it was submitted a day before the plan commission’s final public hearing on the matter.
Parker also said the draft comprehensive plan gives him great comfort about Mt. Vernon’s ability to adapt to the county’s projected future growth.
Randy Sorrell, executive director of the Hancock Economic Development Council, noted one of the themes of the plan’s economic development strategy is to recognize agriculture as a foundational asset in the county. He went on to point to new HEDC staffer Andrew Carty, formerly the economic development director for the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, whom Sorrell said he hired to help foster agricultural economic development opportunities in the county.
“You’ve seen what we’ve done on the west side of the county,” Sorrell said, referring to the industrial surge there. “We’re going to do the opposite of that on the east side of the county, and create more opportunities for the ag community. That’s what the plan says we’re supposed to be doing.”
Plan commission members do not want to wait until a new county planning director is hired before adopting the new comprehensive plan.
“I feel like we went through this process for nearly a year under Mike Dale’s guidance, and Mike Dale came to us with a favorable recommendation from his staff at the time, so I feel like we made it all the way through the process,” Long said.
He added the only reason it’s finishing without Dale is because the plan commission continued its vote due to not having all of its members present at previous public hearings.
Bill Spalding, a plan commission member and county commissioner, said he wouldn’t mind feedback on the draft from the planning consultant contracted to help fill in until a new planning director is hired, but doesn’t think adoption should wait until a new leader is in place.
“I don’t think we can continue it on anymore, because if we do go without a planning director for any more time, we’re left with enacting our old plan, and this new plan has things that are going to help us … move forward the way we want to, and we can’t in the old plan,” he said.
Bill Bolander, a member of the plan commission and county council, agreed.
“I just don’t understand why we’d want to do that,” he said of waiting until a new planning director is in place. “It’s not like a new director is going to just change everything.”
Plan commission member Renee Oldham noted the plan is a guiding, fluid document that can and should be updated throughout the future.
The draft plan heads not only to the county commissioners for adoption, but also the town councils for Shirley and Spring Lake because both towns are members of the county’s area plan commission, represented by Wendell Hester and Byron Holden, respectively. Gregg Morelock, the plan commission’s lawyer, said if the county commissioners adopt the plan but either of the towns don’t, it would still apply to unincorporated Hancock County, but not within the boundaries of the rejecting town.