TERRE HAUTE —
When residents of Woodgate, a subdivision south of Terre Haute, noticed two-story apartment buildings springing up a few dozen feet from their back yards, they starting crying foul.
The apartments are part of Cobblestone Crossing, a commercial and residential property development that started taking shape more than five years ago. The Woodgate residents are upset because they had believed that Cobblestone would feature condominiums and single-family homes in places where apartments are now being constructed.
In response to the unwelcome construction, Woodgate residents have formed an ad hoc organization to fight the apartments. They have taken their complaints to Cobblestone’s ownership, the Vigo County Area Plan Commission, the county Area Planning Department, the Vigo County commissioners and the local news media.
So far, their efforts have failed to halt construction of the apartments, but they are still hoping to wring some concessions from Southern Indiana Investments Co., which owns Cobblestone Crossing.
The neighbors believe some of the apartments at Cobblestone are being constructed “illegally” — not in compliance with the zoning designation for the property. But county officials disagree. They believe the apartments currently under construction, about 70 units in all, are completely legal.
A judge may make the final call.
In the meantime, some changes to Vigo County zoning procedures may emerge.
Jeremy Weir, executive director of the Vigo County Area Planning Department, said his department will recommend tougher standards for notifying nearby property owners when a zoning change is requested, something Woodgate residents urged. Currently, the only notice of a rezoning required in Vigo County is an advertisement in the newspaper of record (The Tribune-Star) and a sign placed somewhere on the property under consideration.
“We’re definitely going to bring forth an additional provision for notification,” Weir said Friday. The Planning Department will recommend the new rules to the Area Plan Commission, an appointed body of citizens and elected officials that hears all rezoning requests in the county. If approved by the Commission, the new rules would apply to anyone seeking rezoning in Vigo County.
The new notification rules would likely require mailing letters to adjacent or nearby property owners, alerting them to a proposed zoning change, Weir said. But certified letters, which are required in some Hoosier counties, are unlikely to be required, he said.
“A lot of people don’t like to sign for them,” Weir said of certified mailings. “What we find is we get a lot of them returned because people aren’t willing to accept them. They think they are getting bad news.”
If letters are required, they would be mailed by the Area Planning Department staff and a fee to cover expenses would be charged to those seeking the rezoning, Weir said.
Indiana law requires only newspaper advertisements of proposed zoning changes. Vigo County has an additional requirement: Notification signs must be placed on the property at least 10 days before the rezoning is considered by the Area Plan Commission.
Some people complain the signs are small and easy to miss, but Weir said they are still fairly effective. While letters would only reach nearby landowners, signs, on the other hand, are often noticed by a larger number of people and set off a “word-of-mouth” effect, informing interested people, he said.
However, in addition to being sometimes easy to miss, the signs can present other problems. A few years ago, someone opposed to a rezoning was removing the signs and then coming to Area Plan Commission meetings to complain that the signs were not being used, Weir recalled.
“We [the Area Planning Department] were the ones actually putting the signs out, so we knew they had been placed,” he said.
Another side-effect of the Cobblestone Crossing-Woodgate clash is that a lot more people are now familiar with local zoning rules, including Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), which are special zoning classifications allowed under Indiana law for “mixed use” and other types of property developments.
Cobblestone Crossing was zoned as a PUD around 2005. At that time, a drawing of the then-proposed development showed it to include commercial spaces, apartments, condominiums and single-family homes.
But in 2007, the Terre Haute housing market suffered from the same bursting housing bubble that hit the rest of the country. The high-end housing market was especially hard hit in Terre Haute when Pfizer ended production of Exubera, a diabetes drug, at its Vigo County plant.
While principles with Cobblestone Crossing have not returned calls from the Tribune-Star, it seems at least possible that the depressed housing market had something to do with plans to build more apartments as the development took shape.
In 2007, Cobblestone presented plans to the Area Planning Department, calling for apartment construction where some condos and single-family homes had been originally proposed. The department and the Area Plan Commission agreed to the changes, but said any future departures from the original PUD would require rezoning.
This 2007 change, which did not go before the Vigo County commissioners, altered Cobblestone’s original plans significantly, said Mike Poinsett, president of the neighborhood group fighting the apartments. The change allowed Cobblestone to devote about 70 acres to apartment buildings compared to its preliminary plan, which called for only about 20, Poinsett said.
PUDs are different from county to county in Indiana, said Jamie Palmer, a senior policy analyst at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute in Indianapolis. How good they are — and how enforceable they are — depends on how well they are written, she said. Whether or not the PUD for Cobblestone permitted the change in 2007 might be for a judge to decide, she said.
While they are good tools for encouraging flexible, creative, mixed-use development, PUDs can also be “problematic,” Palmer said. “They are not always easily understood by the public” and other property owners, she said.
According to Charlie Williams, president of the Woodgate Homeowners Association and part of the effort to fight the Cobblestone apartments, the subdivision residents have hired a lawyer who strongly believes the homeowners have a good case. That lawyer, John J. Moore of Indianapolis, has made that case in at least two letters to county officials.
If nothing else, Williams hopes Cobblestone can be persuaded to build a wall separating Woodgate and Viscaya Point (another neighborhood adjacent to Cobblestone) from the apartment units.
“They plopped that apartment development right in the middle of five of Terre Haute’s better neighborhoods,” Williams said.
But apartments are important to a community, too, said Weir. Apartments can appeal to young people, encouraging them to settle in a community. They are also logical at a time when the single-family housing market is suffering from a surplus, he said.
How the conflict finally shakes out may be decided in court. But, when it comes to determining whether a PUD is developing appropriately, judges are often reluctant to substitute their views for those of planning officials, Palmer said.
Still, if the residents of Woodgate have a lawyer who has reviewed all the nitty-gritty documents, state laws and local ordinances, and still believes the residents have a good case, it’s very possible they do, Palmer said.
“The nitty-gritty matters” in a case like this, she said. “All of the nitty-gritty matters.”
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.