Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA) has testified in opposition to the proposed rezone and variance with Case Number 2023-CZN-814/2023-CVR-814 approved by the Marion County Metropolitan Development Commission (MDC) on August 16, 2023. This concerns a tract of land containing some of the highest quality forest and open space left in Indianapolis. The decision will rezone a near 200 (197.5) acre site located at 6419 West 86th Street and 6302, 6360 and 6424 West 79th Street from D-A, D-1, and D-2 zoning permitting single family residential development and agriculture to the C-S zoning classification to provide for mixed use commercial complexes including commercial, retail, hotel, medical, health care, office and life science businesses and mixed use multi-family residences.
IFA has three primary reasons for opposing the MDC ‘s decision in Case Number 2023-CZN-814/2023-CVR-814
First, there is a strong level of community opposition to this proposal. Approximately two thirds of the seats in the Public Assembly Room of the City County Building where the hearing was held on August 16 were occupied by people who stood in opposition to this proposed rezone and variance and support of the remonstrators, Pike Township Residents Association, West 86th Street Home Owners Association, Traders Point Association of Neighborhoods, Eagle Creek Park Advisory Committee, and local residents Barry and Judy Stern. More than 200 remonstrators from the Pike community attended the hearing on this rezone and variance on July 27 in opposition to the proposal. While the DMD staff did receive “a letter of support from a long time resident,” there were no residents from the area surrounding the proposed rezone and variance who spoke in favor of the proposal. Clearly there is a strong, if not nearly universal, feeling among residents of the area that the proposed developments envisioned in the variance and rezone will negatively affect the character of their community and detract from the livability of their neighborhoods.
Second, there is great public concern that this development is not consistent with the Indianapolis/Marion County Comprehensive Plan. The first sentence describing the Comprehensive Plan on the website (https://www.indy.gov/
The Land Use element of the Comprehensive Plan is the Marion County Land Use Plan. This Land Use Plan informs zoning and establishes policies for the development and redevelopment of all property in Marion County. The Land Use Plan includes a Pattern Book and Land Use Maps. On page 7, the Pattern Book states: “The Pattern Book lays out a land use classification system that guides the orderly development of the county and protects the character of neighborhoods while also being flexible and adaptable enough to allow neighborhoods to grow and change over time.” Presumably the growth and change over time in neighborhoods is something that residents of those neighborhoods generally support and expect to occur rather than something that entire neighborhoods adamantly oppose. Clearly the Comprehensive Plan is replete with assertions about the importance of community involvement not only in the development of the Plan and all of its components but also in the zoning decisions guided by the Plan.
The Land Use Maps apply the land uses outlined in the Pattern Book to geographical areas. The DMD Staff Report explains that the Comprehensive Plan recommends a Rural or Estate Typology for the 200 acres being proposed for this rezone. On pages 17 and 23, the Pattern Book states: “The Rural or Estate Neighborhood Typology applies to both rural or agriculture areas and historic, urban areas with estate-style homes on large lots. In both forms, this typology prioritizes the exceptional natural features – such as rolling hills, high quality woodlands, and wetlands – that make these areas unique. Development in this typology should work with the existing topography as much as possible. Typically, this typology has a residential density of less than one dwelling unit per acre unless housing is clustered to preserve open space.” (emphasis added)
Recommended land uses for this typology include detached housing, working farms, group homes, bed/breakfast, and wind or solar farms.
The Land Use Map for Pike Township shows that the Rural or Estate Typology applies to all of the neighborhood bordering the western side of the 200 acres being proposed for this rezone and the Suburban Typology applies to all neighborhoods bordering the 200 acres to the north and south. The Pattern Book explains on page 17 that Suburban and Rural or Estate Typologies are “Living Typologies” and that “Living Typologies are primarily residential neighborhoods – places where people live. They may have some other uses mixed in, such as small shops, schools, or places of worship, but homes are the priority in these typologies.”
Interstate 465 provides a decisive barrier to other more intensive typologies to the east that include Light Industrial, Regional Special Use, Community Commercial, Office Commercial, and Regional Commercial uses and not neighborhoods where people live. The DMD Staff Report states that development has occurred on both the western and eastern sides of I-465 north and south of the 200 acres in this proposed rezone. The Staff Report concedes this zoning change would not be consistent with the typology in the Comprehensive Plan for this area, but dismisses this inconsistency by pointing out that “the land use boundaries recommended in the Comprehensive Plan are intended to be flexible (rather than along parcel lines) to allow for development that responds to changes in the community’s’ daily life and their current needs..”
However, the fact is, west of I-465, except for a few acres along 71st Street, Typologies that are either Suburban or Rural or Estate extend from 71st Street on the south to 96th Street on the north and across the Eagle Creek and Fishback Creek valleys all the way to the western border of Marion County. The predominant conditions of this area TODAY are homes in subdivisions, estates, farms, environmentally sensitive areas such as forests and wetlands and open space. The current zoning will continue to promote these uses of the land. The rezone and variance approved by the MDC on August 16 will change the zoning to permit the construction of commercial, retail, and office buildings, a hospital or other medical facilities, and life science industries in buildings as much as 90 feet high in some areas, with all of the attendant parking areas, lighting, streets, drainage infrastructure and retention ponds necessary to service these developments on a substantial tract in the heart of this residential area. The developers discuss the need for the city to pay for two traffic circles on West 79th and 86th Streets as well as an extra turning lane on 86th Street onto the I-465 entrance ramp that will require the rebuilding of the I-465 bridge over West 86th Street to accommodate the traffic that their developments are intending to bring into the area.
The MDC produced no discussion let alone any report that estimates the net economic value or forecasts the tax revenue that these developments will bring to Pike Township, and neither they nor the DMD staff have explained “the changes in the community’s’ daily life and their current needs” that justify the development being pursued in this rezone. What they decided to do will thoroughly upend the typologies for this area and contradict the direction in the Comprehensive Plan without any factual presentation as to why such rezoning is needed or necessary.
If decisions to dramatically change the typologies in the Comprehensive Plan altering the basic character envisioned in this Plan for large residential areas to predominantly commercial uses without justification become the norm, why have a Comprehensive Plan?
Third, are several environmental concerns:
1) The Land Use Map for Pike Township also shows that much of the 200 acres in this proposed rezone are in the Overlay classified as “Environmentally Sensitive Areas”. Page 22 of the Pattern Book explains: “The Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ES) Overlay is intended for areas containing high quality woodlands, wetlands, or other natural resources that should be protected. The purpose of this overlay is to prevent or mitigate potential damage to these resources caused by development.” The DMD Staff Report concedes that considerable forests and two wetlands within wooded areas are found on the site. In fact, forests and wetlands occupy approximately 125 acres at this site, including some 40 acres which are considered old forest similar in quality to the dedicated State Nature Preserves in Eagle Creek Park.
While the amended site plan approved on August 16 commits to protecting 48.6 acres of forest and wetland, at least 70 acres of forest and wetland will either be cleared, drained or dug out. The insinuation by the developer that nearly one third of the 200 acres will be preserved is not correct. Some 15.8 acres that includes a shallow 7-acre wetland surrounded by forest is classified as common park space in the latest plan and had to be counted to derive this fraction. Yet nearly all of this 15.8 acres is slated to be dug out to become a lake presumably to retain storm water runoff from the development. All of the Environmentally Sensitive Area along West 86th Street from Conarroe Road to the south entrance ramp onto I-465 as well as the Environmentally Sensitive Area of forest and wetland further south along I-465 will be substantially altered if not eliminated. This will result in the removal of 100-200 heritage trees without a plan to replace these trees in the immediate vicinity of the area.
2) The area is teaming with deer, fox, songbirds, hawks, owls, woodpeckers, ducks and other wildlife. A bat study on neighboring property has produced acoustic evidence that endangered and imperiled bats are utilizing the site. Commercial developments of the scale proposed at this site will fragment and destroy most of the forests, wetlands and open space and the valuable habitat and homes for wildlife that it provides.
3) Under the current site plan, more than 130 acres will become impervious surface in the rezoned area, i.e., buildings, parking lots, sidewalks and roads that prevent precipitation from soaking into the ground. Each acre of this impervious surface will generate 1.2 million gallons of new stormwater runoff every year under the current average precipitation of 43.63 inches per year received in Indianapolis. Note that much of this runoff will occur from area that is currently forest and wetland which act as huge sponges absorbing precipitation and releasing it more slowly than bare ground or lawn. Thus substantially more than 150 million gallons of new runoff will be generated every year by the development envisioned in the current site plan.
The second largest flood recorded on Eagle Creek occurred 10 years ago in April, 2013. The flood raised water levels 12 feet where Hopewell Creek, which drains the proposed rezone area, enters Fox Lake. Hopewell Creek is a tributary of Eagle Creek upstream of Eagle Creek Reservoir which was already full. As a result, bridges in Traders Point and Zionsville were partially under water during this flood.
According to top climate scientists and climate change models from Purdue University, intense, prolonged precipitation events delivering several inches per hour, are expected to increase in Indiana due to climate change. When landscapes are covered with a lot of impervious surfaces, major precipitation events will force much more runoff into streams overflowing natural channels that are not large enough to accommodate the increased unnatural runoff volumes resulting in floods that are worse than ever. In fact, floods in many areas of Indianapolis along streams and their tributaries are expanding to impact properties beyond the floodplains delineated in maps of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Amidst these floods, at a time when the City’s Thrive Plan states that leaders will undertake substantial efforts to make the city more resilient in the face of climate change, the substantial developments proposed in this rezone will greatly exacerbate the increased flooding threat being predicted universally by the federal government and the scientific community.
4) The DMD staff and MDC appear to be oblivious to the value of the farmland and open space that will be filled by this rezone. This farmland has rich, fertile Miami soils. Imagine the value that a community garden in the fields at the southern end of this site could provide for the public schools and those with limited incomes in Indianapolis. The economic value of this farmland and other farmland remaining in Marion County as well as the economic value and quality of life provided by open space in the outer Townships of Indianapolis not only to surrounding neighborhoods but to the entire city should be calculated before that farmland and open space is gone.
In conclusion, there is a growing sense that public opinion and the concerns of residential property owners across the city of Indianapolis do not matter in zoning decisions made by the MDC. The public may soon conclude that rather than being a planning document for the community, the Comprehensive Plan of Indianapolis and Marion County has become a piñata for developers. Self-serving claims that residential estates or agriculture will never occur on this and other sites can be made by developers who believe they can continually procure rezones and variances from the MDC that result in the instant spike of land prices to levels untenable for residential typologies or the protection of environmentally sensitive areas.
Values that should be considered in the Comprehensive Plan at the front end of zoning decisions that will substantively change this Plan are hardly thought of by the DMD staff or the MDC, or such considerations are pushed off to be undertaken after the crucial decisions are made, making them meaningless exercises. Despite the increased threat of flooding from climate change and a publicly-acknowledged need to update FEMA maps in Marion County to reflect floodplains that are expanding, as well as a large amount of impervious surfaces this rezone will bring to an area that currently has a large capacity to absorb precipitation, no analysis of the potential hydrologic impacts has occurred. Nor have any explanations, credible or otherwise, been provided to assure the many residents living downstream from this rezone that their safety from flooding will not be further compromised or their property damages increased by this rezone.
Fundamental questions about who should pay for the major improvements in transportation infrastructure to accommodate increased traffic brought by the rezone are unanswered.
Another example is the fact that the natural habitat that will be lost to this development happens to be adjacent to the planned Eagle Creek Greenway in the City’s Full Circle Greenways Plan, a fact not mentioned anywhere in the DMD staff report on this rezone. For the outer township Greenways to have integrity, the City needs to target the forests and valuable open spaces along their planned right-of-ways for acquisition or conservation by other means. That option is being foreclosed or substantially reduced for the Eagle Creek Greenway in this area by this rezone.
This forest and wetland provides valuable ecosystem services such as flood absorption, maintenance of air and water quality, heat amelioration, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic, recreational and property value that should be accounted for and enforceable mitigation options committed to before decisions are made to change zoning that will degrade or eliminate them.
The low demand for more office and commercial space suggested by the high number of “For Lease” signs across I-465 from the site in industrial and commercial areas has yet to be acknowledged by the rezone’s developers or the MDC An automatic assumption of value exceeding costs from this rezone has been made by the MDC without any economic study providing forecasts or estimates of the property tax revenues, jobs or net value that will be generated to the local community or Indianapolis within any timeframe. These questions should be answered BEFORE a rezone and variance that fundamentally change the roadmap in the Comprehensive Plan are approved.
Accordingly, Indiana Forest Alliance urges the City-County Council to call down the Case Number 2023-CZN-814/2023-CVR-814 approved by the MDC on August 16 for consideration by the full City-County Council. We ask the Council to vote to overturn this decision because it was premature and done without the facts assembled to justify the rezone, will cause major harm to the environment and is completely unsupported by the surrounding community whose residents have invested their lives there and have the most to gain or lose from this decision. Recognizing that members of the Council may not concur with some or more of IFA’s contentions, we respectfully ask the Council to, at the least, call this rezone and variance down for consideration by the Council on September 11 to give remonstrators of this project and your constituents the chance to be heard and all 25 members of the Council, the opportunity to decide upon this important matter critical to the integrity of the Indianapolis/Marion County Comprehensive Plan.
Indiana Forest Alliance