Rezoning Heats Up County Commissioners Meeting, video conferencing coming

Attorney Richard Helm explains to the Kosciusko County Commissioners Tuesday why his client wants to rezone the property at the intersection of T25 and Armstrong Road. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.

A rezoning before the county commissioners Tuesday got a little heated between a remonstrator and the petitioner’s attorney.

The Kosciusko County Area Plan Commission unanimously voted at their Nov. 4 meeting to recommend to the commissioners that Amber Real Estate’s rezoning petition from agricultural to commercial zoning be denied. On Tuesday, the commissioners unanimously accepted that recommendation.

Area Plan Director Dan Richard told the commissioners that the 2.5 acres is located at the northwest corner of the intersection of Triplegate Road (T25) and Armstrong Road.

“There were a number of petitions on file, a number of remonstrators that were present. The main concern had to do with the residential agricultural-2 zone, the residential-type subdivision in through here, traffic safety was discussed. A long discussion on potential uses,” Richard said.

He said the petitioner doesn’t have to divulge the potential uses, but when there is a rezoning request the commissioners have to consider any and all potential uses under a commercial category, as well as exception uses.

“Considering all of those, that’s where your unanimous recommendation came through not to allow the rezoning,” Richard said.

Richard Helm, attorney for Amber Real Estate LLC, a Gerald and Gloria Williams family-owned limited liability company, said the way the county is set up with rezonings is that it goes to the planning commission for a “supposedly advisory opinion. The way it’s currently working is that becomes a full-blown hearing at which remonstrators get to get up and complain about anything they might want to complain about in the proposal.”

He said it’s not set up for the petitioner necessarily to bring in “similar things.” Helm said a rezoning is a “legislative” matter.

Helm presented the commissioners with information on 12 neighbors who are in favor of the petition, acknowledging that one of them is a member of the family LLC.

“What you had at the Plan Commission level was a bunch of people who occupy parcels, lots zoned Ag-2, immediately to the east of the proposed rezoning, opposing it,” Helm said.

He also told the commissioners that the motion he heard at the Nov. 4 Plan Commission hearing was – instead of what was supposed to be just a recommendation –  “I move to deny” because “they think they’re making the final decision because you guys generally take the view that you’re going to go with what they send you. I just want to point that out that the attitude is we’re going to listen to remonstrators and we’re going to count up heads, and Dan regularly says it’s not a popularity contest, but it ends up being that.” He said that’s why he was providing documentation that a number of neighbors had no problem with the rezoning.

Helm said a representative of the petition went to several of the remonstrators and asked them if there was any condition or proposal that could be offered to satisfy their reservations. The representative was “rebuffed,” he said.

He pointed out that family members live in close proximity to the proposed rezoning. It’s surrounded on two sides by property that will still be owned by Amber Real Estate. “There’s no way they’re going to mess up their own nest,” he said.

Helm said, and he pointed this out at the Nov. 4 meeting, that his clients had no problem offering a recordable restriction on the property that the property wouldn’t be used for a service station, pier and boatlift station and mini warehouses.

He then talked about the remonstrance, noting that the land surrounding the property in question is zoned Ag or Ag-2, which “are compatible” with a commercial use. He said one neighbor with a home occupation, “which is essentially industrial,” was doing manufacturing work. A second neighbor “who thinks it’s horrible to have commercial zoning, actually runs a racecar facility.” If you Google that neighbor, Helm said you’ll get a video of a racecar “burning rubber down a county road which looks – I’m not going to say that I know this for sure – but looks very, very closely resembles T25, which is the corner of the intersection we’re talking about.”

Helm said two of the four remonstrators are “already in essentially industrial or commercial enterprise next door.” In a court of law, he said they wouldn’t have any standing to complain about someone doing something similar.

“Zoning is supposed to be appropriateness of the use and not a popularity contest,” Helm said.

Commissioner Bob Conley, who also sits on the Plan Commission, got into an argument over what was and was not said at the Nov. 4 meeting regarding what the property would be used for if it was rezoned. Helm said Conley was advocating for spot zoning, use variance zoning, which the city has but the county doesn’t permit. Helm also said the property had multiple inquiries regarding its purchase but Amber Real Estate doesn’t have a current proposed purchaser or use.

The second neighbor, Mitch Truman, said Helm was “lying.” “If he can come up with a photo of my racecar on the road, I’ll give him $1,000 because it doesn’t exist,” Truman said. He said he races from Indianapolis to California but his car “has never been out on that street. That’s a lie.” He also presented the commissioners with other letters from neighbors.

“He’s also lying that he has no idea what will be built there because the owners told Justin May, one of the property owners, that they’ve got two buyers if this place goes commercial. So they have some idea what’s going to be built there if it goes commercial,” Truman said.

Helm responded that he’s been called a liar before but what Truman said he said was not what he said. “What I said was, ‘go Google it for yourself,’ and I said I did not identify that as T25, it looks a lot like it. If he says it isn’t, I’ll take his word for it. But he’s still running a hot rod shop there,” Helm said and then he and Truman began arguing over each other.

Helm told Truman, “You know, I can sue you for that statement.” He said that would be his “project” next week.

Commissioner Brad Jackson said what they were arguing over was irrelevant to what was before them Tuesday.

“I understand, but there’s also a precept that says you call someone that calls into question their professional ethics, and it is slander per se, and he can look for a summons from me. That will be a separate thing,” Helm said.

Truman and Helm began to argue some more and Jackson had to pound his fist on the table and asked for no more of it.

After the hearing was closed to the public, Commissioner Cary Groninger said, “Just looking at the property, and it’s a small parcel like that, and I think kind of looking at somewhat spot zoning, I guess I think having a better idea of how the whole property might be developed in the future would definitely be a lot more enticing for me to want to vote for it.”

Jackson said it was his opinion it would be better if the property owners asked for an exception instead of a rezoning because rezoning it commercial was painting the property “with a pretty broad brush.”

Conley said he wasn’t advocating for spot zoning and that the Area Plan Commission had taken everything into consideration when it made its recommendation. He made the motion to accept the APC’s recommendation and it was unanimously approved.

Old County Courtroom Video Conferencing Available By Year’s End

There was a smiley face painted high on the north wall of the old county courthouse Tuesday morning, but it won’t be there for long.

To explain the graffiti at the county commissioners meeting, County Administrator Marsha McSherry said, “Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that, but they’re working on getting ready to put up the acoustic panels for the video conferencing. They’re painting around the edges, as you can see, and that will be filled in with an acoustic panel, and so it will fit up against the wood frames and stick out about an inch and a half. That will help with the sound in this room when we get the video conferencing livestreaming up and running  in here.”

She said it’s scheduled to be done by year’s end.

Commissioner Bob Conley asked if that would just be on the end of the north/south walls. McSherry said it will be between the windows and on the corners.

Commissioner Brad Jackson said you shouldn’t be able to see them once it’s done, and McSherry agreed. “They’ll be fabric panels, they just may not be the exact color of the paint so they’re painting around the wood so it all just blends in,” she said.

Jackson said they’ve tried diligently to protect the beauty of the courtroom because of its historic value.

It was Jackson who also said the county may have set a government record, referring to the COVID-19 testing site which moved from the Bowen Center Health Clinic to the fairgrounds.

He said the county was made aware last Tuesday or Wednesday that there was an issue at the Bowen Center site with the tents and the large number of people showing up to get tested.

“I talked to (Bowen Center CEO) Kurt Carlson and to Marsha, and they both, mainly Marsha, I’d say 90%, took the ball and ran with it and they actually were testing Monday morning (at the fairgrounds),” Jackson said. “So, three business days.”

McSherry said due to the change in the weather and the number of people getting tested – larger than the Bowen Center expected – and along with the fabric tent set up for the testing, the testing site wasn’t going to continue to work.

“As Brad said, we got a call on Wednesday, and Friday morning we had plans ironed out to get them out to the fairgrounds at the Shrine building,” McSherry said.

Before going to the fairgrounds, she said they looked at commercial properties, talked to a commercial realtor and to the city of Warsaw.

“Just by a process of elimination, we were able to move some meetings around and get them into the Shrine building at the fairgrounds,” McSherry said. “I think things are working quite well for them. They were up and running yesterday morning.”

Jackson said it was “quite amazing” to him.

“For a private sector, that would be amazing. For government, that’s unheard of,” he said.

In other business, the commissioners:

• Approved the third-quarter claims for Kosciusko Area Bus Service, as requested by Cardinal Services Corporate Vice President Matt Boren.

“If you recall, we had the CARES Act funding that went into place in July to really give us 18 months of federal CARES funding for public transportation. However, there was already approved state dollars for 2020 and for 2021 that INDOT wanted us to use prior to” using the CARES Act funding, he said.

The claim for July through September 2020 is for a total of $146,622. Of that, approximately $55,000 will be from the 2020 state money and $91,000 will be from the 2021 state money. He said the next claim will be about $700 from the state and the rest will be the federal CARES funds.

“All of the county dollars, the city dollars, some of the other dollars we generate for KABS is currently going into a restricted fund that can be used for public transportation after the federal CARES Act money is exhausted and that is something INDOT worked out to make sure they were using those CARES Act dollars for public transportation,” he said.

Commissioner Cary Groninger asked what KABS ridership is, and Boren said it’s a little down at about 3,000 rides a month from 4,000-4,500. As the winter settles in, they expect ridership to increase as biking and walking become less viable options.

• Approved County Health Administrator Bob Weaver to replace Kosciusko County Health Department environmental scientist Neal Brown’s truck, which collided with a deer about a month ago.

In getting some estimates to get the truck fixed initially, Weaver said they learned it would only be about a $1,000 difference to trade the vehicle in with a warranty, instead of fixing the old one. He said he had money in his budget to do that this year. He got three estimates and wanted to go with the lowest one from Shepherd’s. The estimate to trade is $3,050.

• Approved the ordinance amendment regarding public use communication towers, as presented by Area Plan Assistant Planner Matt Sandy. Sandy also presented it to the Area Plan Commission Nov. 4, which unanimously approved recommending the county commissioners approve it.

• Voted to use CARES Act funding to reimburse payroll expenses of employees in public health and public safety departments, as presented by county attorney Chad Miner. The commissioners will approve and sign the resolution at their Dec. 8 meeting.

• Approved the interlocal agreement between the county council, commissioners and the Kosciusko County Solid Waste Management District. The agreement allows the county auditor, Michelle Puckett, to be the controller of the KCSWMD for a fee of $6,000 annually, Puckett said.

Puckett also presented the interlocal agreement between the county and the Kosciusko County Convention, Recreation and Visitor Commission (KCCRVC). It allows Puckett to be the controlling agent for the KCCRVC, and the commissioners also approved that.

She said the agreement was reviewed over the last year and her services will be refined “to exactly what is listed in the agreement.” The KCCRVC signed off on the agreement Nov. 4.

“Previously, even though it was listed that I was the controller, I was also the secretary so I did the agenda, did the minutes, had the communication with everybody before and after, as well as the financial responsibilities. So this will narrow that scope to just the financial responsibilities and reporting those at every minutes,” she said, noting that she will still attend every KCCRVC meeting and fulfill her duties to the county council and commissioners.

• Approved all four items presented by Highway Superintendent Steve Moriarty, including reducing the speed on Walnut Creek off CR 200S from 30 to 25 mph; a financial commitment letter for the Husky Trail bridge project, committing the county to 20% of the project with federal funding providing 80%; the purchase of a sign truck to replace the department’s 22-year-old truck, with quotes accepted until Dec. 7, bids opened Dec. 8 and awarded Dec. 22; the acceptance of the highway’s recommendation for the annual bids for supplies, except for fuel.

Moriarty said they want to rebid the fuel as they only received two bids on it and previously received more than that. The bids will be opened and accepted Dec. 22.