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Note: I took a journalism class this semester. This is my final article for that class. This was published on the Bloomington Source earlier this month.

Monroe County residents seek long term solution for development

By Scott Tibbs, May 12, 2010

Butting heads with Monroe County government is not new to Franklin Andrew. It was 1993 when Andrew and other property owners filed a lawsuit against Monroe County over a plan to convert a railroad that went through his property into a walking trail, in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — a case that Andrew won.

Now, Andrew is concerned that the proposed Monroe County Comprehensive Plan would destroy his retirement plans. He wants to eventually divide his land into 5- and 10-acre lots and live off the sale of the property.

Andrew was one of many concerned citizens who attended several meetings last fall regarding the proposed comprehensive plan as competing visions for future growth in Monroe County were discussed. Supporters argue development needs to be consistent and planned, in order to control costs and protect neighbors. But opponents worry about property rights issues and dispute claims that development costs too much.

A comprehensive plan is required under Indiana Code 36-7-4, and the one currently being discussed is an update to the current comprehensive plan adopted in 1996.

"I think the comprehensive plan is really a guiding document for future land use in Monroe County," said Greg Zody, director of the Monroe County Planning Department. "I think it gives good guidance to property owners about the direction that the plan commission and county commission want to move the county in terms of land use."

What will Monroe County look like in 2030?

Zody said that the plan is about how the community defines growth.

"Is growth just going to be wherever, allow people to do what they want on their property? Or is there going to be consideration to the infrastructure, to existing development patterns? And all of this is really the foundation of what our comprehensive plan is," Zody said.

Zody pointed out that one of the changes from the previous zoning plan is a move toward density zoning. The planning department’s Web site has a link to a document published by the Minnehaha County, South Dakota planning department arguing that Euclidian regulations were ineffective in preserving a rural environment.

"For several years the only requirement to build on agriculturally zoned property was for the dwelling to be located on a lot of at least one acre in size. This resulted in a scattering of residential uses which appeared as strip developments along major roads and highways or as multi-lot rural subdivisions," the document states.

Zody said the links were posted by the Planning Department for the purpose of providing background information.

Euclidian zoning has a set of universal standards for lot size based on the zoning for the area. A density-based approach takes into account surrounding development, the density of the surrounding area, and the maximum target density for the area, Zody said. Under the formula used to calculate lot sizes, a piece of land in the "Bloomington Urbanizing Area" would have lower minimum lot sizes and greater allowable density than a piece of land farther out in rural Monroe County.

County Council member Julie Thomas believes that density-based formula will make development more even.

"The density-based formula will spread development throughout the county while allowing for the concentration of development in the Urban Communities," Thomas wrote in an e-mail. "Currently, the development in the county is spread like buckshot on target – it’s sporadic and does not match the density of surrounding areas."

Andrew is concerned that the comprehensive plan will be too much of a restriction on property rights. He says that less than 10 percent of all land in Monroe County is developed, and 33 percent is set aside through various easements and restrictions. Of the remaining land, 85 percent will be unable to be developed if a development is prohibited on land with a 15 percent slope or greater, Andrew said.

Thomas argues that part of the purpose is to protect neighbors, specifically for people who buy property in rural areas.

"If a large development of 200 cookie-cutter style homes on 2.5 acre properties, for example, the residents in the area are faced with increased traffic and possibly increased commercial activity – all of which is more ‘urban’ in character than rural," Thomas wrote.

The current draft of the plan includes three options for property owners looking to subdivide, Thomas wrote. These options include "minimum lot size, excising small parcels of property off of a larger property (of at least 17 acres) to provide land for relatives (or others); or the density-based formula."

Thomas says property rights involve more than the owner’s ability to develop his property.

"There are two sides to this question: the rights of (large lot) property owners to subdivide/develop and the rights of property owners in rural areas to continue to enjoy rural living. With the three options for subdivision, the rights of ALL property owners are protected," Thomas wrote.

Andrew disagrees. "Of all of the people that serve in county government, who among them are more qualified to determine land use policy than the marketplace?" he asked.

The cost to county government

In addition to the concerns over how Monroe County should look, there are also financial considerations. Supporters of the plan argue that restrictions are necessary because uncontrolled development puts a strain on the finances of county government.

"I don’t want to spend extra money as a taxpayer to support some of these developments that are out in the middle of nowhere where it’s not consistent with the surrounding densities," Zody said.

Thomas shares the concern. In a Nov. 24 post on Pin-The-Tail.com, she wrote: "If we quadrupled the number of homes in our County, we would be tied to the same (total) property tax cap. This is why there is such a concern about the impact of subdivisions on the taxpayers throughout the County."

That opinion is not universal.

Marty Hawk, another member of the County Council, disputes that point and argues development will increase property tax revenue collected by increasing the overall assessed evaluation and says Monroe County can grow its levy.

Hawk points to the "1-2-3 cap" passed by the legislature that set the upper limit for property taxes at one, two or three percent of the property’s assessed evaluation depending on the nature of the property.

Hawk said that while other counties have faced a revenue shortfall because of the cap on which individual properties can be taxed, Monroe County has been spared that problem to some extent.

"The reason why we’ve not been hit so hard here in this county is because all the different tax levies have grown their allowable amount," Hawk said.

Hawk argues that allowing more development will allow for increased revenue to county government by increasing the overall assessed evaluation of all land. As the total assessed evaluation grows, the tax rate on existing properties does not need to be as high to get the same amount of revenue, Hawk said.

"If we continue to grow our assessed value we can continue to grow our levy increase," Hawk said. "If we stop assessed value growth we will hit that 1% cap earlier."

Andrew points out that the highway department is not part of the county general fund budget and is not funded by property taxes, but instead is funded by automobile excise taxes, gas taxes, and the wheel tax and surtax.

The county general budget is represented by the 0101 fund in the overall county budget, while the highway department is represented by the 0702 fund. There are other funds that are financed by various means such as federal and state grants, according to the Monroe County Auditor’s Office.

Hawk further argues that the cost to the county highway department is lessened because any of the new developments have cross section improvement that improves storm water issues with retention and detention ponds. Developers also put in their own sidewalks, streets and landscaping.

When developers build roads, said Andrew, it is net gain because it adds miles to the gas tax and excise tax calculations and the strain on the county budget is minimal.

Thomas recognizes that infrastructure may be built by the developer, but said there are continuing costs.

"The roads they build are maintained by the county (not the developer) – including snow removal and paving/patching, and the increased demand for sewer and water service may mean County residents will have foot the bill for the larger supply pipes or water prices will increase (as they are likely to do) because plants / supply piping requires updating due to high demand (due to increased population)," Thomas wrote.

Other costs include are public safety needs, such as sending law enforcement out into the county, but "that is probably the biggest stress you will see," Hawk said.

Hawk pointed out that if development increases income for county residents, the county’s take of the county option income tax increases. Steve Saulter, chief deputy in the county Auditor’s Office, said that the county collected $8,004,427 in COIT in 2008 and $8,899,751 in 2009. The county will collect 9,835,141 in 2010. COIT is also distributed to other units of government, such as townships and city government.

Elections determine plans and their implementation

Ultimately, the guiding philosophy of what Monroe County should look like in 20 years as defined by the comprehensive plan and the zoning ordinance is determined by who wins elections, because the philosophy of appointments changes with the philosophy of elected officials, Zody pointed out. "The people have spoken when they voted," he said.

"This is the type of paradigm or type of development or approach that they wanted to see," Zody said. "Who knows next election cycle what they will want? They might say ‘oh, we don’t want this’ or ‘we’re not doing enough’."

The next opportunity for people do voice their opinions through the ballot box will be the May 4 primary and Nov. 2 general elections.