County names new planning director


HANCOCK COUNTY – Kayla Brooks may be the county’s new planning director, but she’s been a familiar face around the office over the past couple months.

She’s been providing planning services to the county as a consultant since her longtime predecessor stepped down. The appointment marks her return to the public sector, where she’ll help lead planning efforts for a county she’s called home for over a year. It comes at a time when the county is experiencing significant growth and as officials prepare to consider adopting a document designed to help guide development over the coming decades.

Brooks earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Indiana University.

“There’s something about the connection of people and place that’s always been really interesting to me,” she said. “When I was young, family history was a big interest, and so I traveled the state, got to visit a lot of county courthouses, and libraries, and cemeteries, things like that.”

After IU, Brooks earned a master’s degree in historic preservation from Ball State University and worked for a civil engineer and surveyor in Savannah, Georgia.

“I was pretty used to going to courthouses and pulling property records and reading old handwriting,” she said with a laugh, adding her responsibilities included plot plans, elevation certificates and subdivision submittals.

Then she returned to Indiana, where she worked for VS Engineering and then became planning and zoning administrator for the town of Pendleton. She’s currently wrapping up her time with Indianapolis-based GRW, an engineering, architectural and geospatial consulting firm.

When Brooks saw the vacancy for Hancock County’s deputy planning director left by Larry Strange, she reached out to then-county planning director Mike Dale about planning services GRW offers to communities to help fill gaps and provide extra help. The county soon enlisted her to provide those services to help fill not only Strange’s departure, but Dale’s as well, as he left in September to take a position as Zionsville’s community and economic development director. She’s been working in that capacity for the county about three days a week.

Brooks said she was interested in pursuing the county planning director position because she misses the public sector.

“Working with people, really – just that connection with the public has always been something I’ve enjoyed,” she said. “And I really like being in a local setting like this.”

Brooks described her approach to planning as community-oriented.

“You have to know your community and adjust your approach depending on where you’re at,” she said. “…In my eyes a county tends to be more rural, a little bit more spread out, not as centralized as a town or city planner’s office would be, and so a lot of it is more rural-focused. … I’m still finding out where that is – where that balance is here and how to adjust that approach.”

Hancock County is not only getting a new planning director, but a new comprehensive plan as well. The county’s plan commission supports the update and the county commissioners are slated to vote on it next month. If approved, leaders will use the document to guide development over the next 20 years. Along with land use recommendations, the plan also includes a thoroughfare plan and economic development strategy.

Brooks married her husband in August 2021 and moved to Hancock County to live on his family farm. She participated as a resident in the comprehensive plan update process, which provided multiple opportunities for the public to provide feedback.

“I’m still familiarizing myself with all the real gems that are in there,” she said of the document, which is over 200 pages. “…Every time I look through it, I find something new I didn’t know was there.”

The process for the update has been contentious at times, as has plans for the multiple large industrial buildings in the western part of the county over the past several years.

“Change is hard, and sometimes when you see a land use plan or a document like that that has a lot of different views that maybe are a little different than what you’ve seen in the past, it’s hard to accept or understand,” Brooks said. “And I’m still new enough to the community that I’m just learning about it.”

She praised the efforts that went into the new comprehensive plan, which started in 2021 and were led by the consulting firm Vandewalle & Associates and a steering committee of local stakeholders.

“I think they did a really nice job,” she said. “I know they’ve approached a lot of hard issues, and they’ve taken into account a lot of the community’s concerns.”

Leaders have approached the county’s western industrial growth by attempting to balance landowners’ desires to sell, developers’ desires to build, and rural residents’ desires to retain as much of their quality of life as possible.

“That is one of those things that when I first saw it going on when I moved to the county – I need to take more time to understand this – and that’s still where I’m at as a planner also,” Brooks said. “…[O]r at least understand where the county is on this. Because that’s one of those things – you read the community, you say, ‘What does my community want to do here?’ And a lot of times there are little changes you can make to the zoning ordinance that can achieve what they want, or take care of some concerns, and they’re really small.”

Brooks is looking forward to taking on other important planning tasks, like adjusting residential development standards. The county currently has two overarching brackets depending on proximity to a municipality.

“It should just be one at this point, so we’re going to go through that and hopefully have a draft prepared for the plan commission,” Brooks said.

She also wants to implement a yearly review of board of zoning appeals petitions to see if there are many of the same kind being granted. That may merit changing the county’s zoning ordinance or subdivision control ordinance to save the public from having to get variances or special exceptions in every instance.

The Hancock County Area Plan Commission unanimously approved the hiring of Brooks with a salary of about $103,000. She officially starts in the position on Jan. 2.

Michael Long, president of the plan commission, said the opening drew seven qualified candidates.

“That, I think says a lot about the person that was selected, and then also says a lot about good things, to me, going on in the county from a development, economic development standpoint – that we have that many qualified people that want to be a part of it,” he said.

The plan commission interviewed five of the applicants.

“I think what we liked about Kayla was that she has a nice solid mix of practical planning and what I would call academic planning,” Long said. “I think she’ll be great with the day-to-day in the office, but then also with that long-range planning working with economic development, working with the plan commission and the [county] commissioners on the goals of development in the county.”


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