HANCOCK COUNTY — Planning officials reached another impasse on a contentious warehouse proposal, but it’s moving on for final consideration.

Exeter Property Group, an international real estate firm with a U.S. headquarters outside Philadelphia, is looking to rezone 40 acres at the northeast corner of County Roads 300N and 400W from agricultural to industrial. That would pave the way to build a warehouse planned at over 500,000 square feet. The development would be speculative, meaning an occupant has yet to be identified.

The Hancock County Area Plan Commission voted 4-1 to send the rezone request to the Hancock County Board of Commissioners with no recommendation. Bill Bolander, Bill Spalding, Tom Nigh and Michael Long voted in favor while Wendell Hester voted against. Byron Holden and Renee Oldham were not present.

The vote followed an attempt from Spalding, who’s also a county commissioner, to send the request to the commissioners with a favorable recommendation. He, Bolander and Long voted in favor while Hester and Nigh voted against. Although the tally was 3-2, a successful vote requires a majority of the full commission — four members — even when not all members are present.

Spalding described visiting the area of the site Exeter wants to develop.

“When I look one mile to the south and see Interstate 70 and I can look one mile to the northwest and see Indianapolis Regional Airport, I see major transportation links that lead me to believe this portion of land has great potential to be zoned industrial and commercial, or remain agricultural,” he said. “If a residence was built in the same place, regardless of the date of build, one could have not ruled out the possibility that this type of development was to come. It would not have been a matter of if, but when.”

The plan commission continued the matter from its September meeting due to a similar split-vote situation. Nigh also opposed the rezone at that session, saying the area was too far east from the Mt. Comfort Corridor than he was comfortable with for industrial development.

The commission continued it from October as well. Spalding asked for the delay after he and other officials met with Ball State University experts, one of whom is working to analyze whether Hancock County has enough, too many or could support more speculative warehouse developments. Spalding said while that information has yet to be determined, he did not want to continue the rezone again for what would have been a fourth time. (The developer also received a continuance in August to have time to meet with project opponents.)

Residents living near the site have sent dozens of letters and emails to the county’s planning department in opposition to the proposal. They’ve also expressed that opposition at plan commission meetings, including several who attended the most recent session on Tuesday evening, Nov. 30. Concerns include increased traffic’s impact on roads, effects on quality of life, and growing pressure on public safety agencies from the ongoing surge in development.

“I just think you need to slow down, let everything catch up, come back to it,” David Clapper told officials.

Brad Burkhart, Hancock County sheriff, addressed questions on developments’ impact on public safety. He noted he hired three deputies recently and plans to hire three more early next year, but questioned whether that would be enough. Burkhart recalled how Amazon’s new warehouse in the county drew more than 70 calls from the sheriff’s department and Buck Creek Township Fire Department in the first four months of the year. Walmart’s nearby 2.2-million-square-foot facility is expected to come online soon, he continued, and he questioned how many calls that could add.

“I don’t know if I’m going to have enough manpower to handle those,” Burkhart said. “We may have to change the way we do some things. I don’t know. My fear is I’m going to concentrate so much on my deputies that are going to be in that area that they can’t respond to some of these calls out in the county.”

Exeter’s representatives and county officials who support the proposal point to the already established industrial zoning at the other three corners of the site’s intersection of county roads. They also refer to road improvements promised by the developer in the site’s direct vicinity, as well as road improvements beyond the site the county is planning over the next five to 10 years. Additionally, Exeter is willing to work with county officials on an economic development agreement that would funnel some of its tax payments to public safety and schools.

County officials weighed concerns from the property owners looking to sell their land for Exeter’s project as well, like Tim McCarthy. He’s dismayed by all of the buildings going up nearby too, and views the developer’s plans and potential buyout as his opportunity to escape it.

“I was going to retire in that home,” McCarthy said. “I’m retiring this year. That was my dream home. I redid the whole thing. I want out now. So I ask that you guys consider approving this. It’s not going to affect anyone as directly as me. I’m a ping-pong ball — one acre sitting in the middle of a field full of warehouses all around me.”

The rezone request will be scheduled for an upcoming meeting of the county commissioners, who have the authority to make the final decision.
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