Chesterton Tribune

Best use? GK development a test of town land use plan

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Analysis

By KEVIN NEVERS

In December 2004 a developer sought a use variance from the Chesterton Board of Zoning Appeals to permit the construction of eight 16-unit apartment buildings on a 7.9-acre parcel zoned B-3 and located directly behind the Kmart at 750 Indian Boundary Road.

The developer, discouraged by the lackluster response of the BZA, later abandoned his plan, but not before Member Jeff Trout issued him this challenge: If you want the variance, Trout told the developer’s attorney, you will need to demonstrate that multi-family residential is a better use of that property than B-3. Not a few businesspeople in town, he added, are unlikely to think so.

Trout’s challenge was a fair one, it evinced his planner’s sensitivity to location, context, and the golden rule of “best and highest value,” and it’s worth posing now to a different developer: GK Development Inc. of Barrington, Ill., whose attorney, Greg Babcock, will present a proposal at Thursday’s meeting of the Plan Commission for a 331,462-square foot retail center on a 40.80-acre parcel currently zoned—all but a fraction of it—I-1 and I-2.

The property in question is bounded by C.R. 1100N to the north, Rail Road to the south, Ind. 49 to the west, and Coffee Creek to the east and is presently the site of three buildings, occupied by Nielsen Nissan at 118E 1100N, Priority Transportation Inc.—the successor to KAT Trucking Inc.—at 116E 1100N, and USA Logistics Inc. in the odd wedge-shaped building at 1801 Technology Drive. Only the extreme northwest corner of that property—where Nielsen operates—is zoned B-3. The balance of the western half is zoned I-2; the eastern half, I-1.

Unless GK intends to seek a re-zone of the property, it will have to submit its proposal to the Plan Commission as a planned unit development (PUD), which would give planners substantial control over the nuts and bolts of the design and absolute discretion in approving it.

For the moment, though, forget re-zones and PUDs. Simply re-phrase Trout’s question: is retail a better use of this property than industrial?

Town officials and business leaders have often noted the paucity of industrial districts in Chesterton and lamented the difficulty in attracting quality manufactures to a town where there are so few places to put them. Certainly the Chesterton Comprehensive Plan—officially adopted by the Town Council in September 2004 after more than three years in the making—would appear to make a prima facie case for keeping the property industrial. Of the town’s 5,682 total acres, industrial districts account for only 264 acres or 5 percent of the whole. And converting this particular property into retail—for the sake of argument, say that 35 of the 40.80 acres are I-1 or I-2—would take more than 13 percent of those 264 acres out of industrial play forever.

Indeed, the Future Land Use Map included in the Comprehensive Plan specifically retains the I-2 and I-1 zones of this property.

The best and highest use of the property, however, is only one of the issues which planners will face on Thursday and in the months ahead. There are others.

Traffic

Access to the retail center, according to the site plan submitted by GK to the Clerk-Treasurer’s Office on July 7, would be provided by three road cuts along C.R. 1100N and three more along Rail Road. None of those cuts, though, is aligned with existing streets or drives: with Pioneer Trail off C.R. 1100N—by means of which motorists access the new WiseWay Foods, the Family Express, and Pioneer Lumber; or with the entrance to the Ark of the Dunes Animal Hospital at 135E 1100N; or with Kelle Drive off Rail Road; or with the back entrance to the Steel Family Health Care Center at 2022 Kelle Drive. This design feature resembles all too closely the staggered road cuts along Indian Boundary Road west of Ind. 49, which have caused over the years untold confusion and innumerable crashes.

One of those road cuts, moreover—the westernmost along eastbound C.R. 1100N—is sited exceedingly close to Ind. 49. Combine the proximity of that cut to the intersection with the fact that eastbound C.R. 1100N is only one lane, and the likelihood emerges of a unholy stacking problem, as motorists headed for the retail center to the south and WiseWay to the north all converge in a narrow bottleneck.

Planners would be well advised to insist on GK’s adding—at its own expense, as a condition of the PUD—not only another eastbound lane but also a deceleration lane.

Planners would be well advised to insist as well on GK’s installing—again at its own expense, as a condition of the PUD—a traffic signal at the intersection of Pioneer Trail and C.R. 1100N, against the time, probably sooner rather than later, when the Indiana Department of Transportation will warrant its activation.

Eventually, a second signal is likely to be needed too at the intersection of Rail Road and Kelle Drive, as motorists coming from Valparaiso and points south learn to use the back entrance to the retail center by exiting Ind. 49 at Sidewalk Road and hanging a left onto Kelle Drive.

Parking and Coffee Creek

In addition, the site plan provides for a total of 28.7 acres of parking and space for 1,657 vehicles. Is this too much parking, too little, or just right?

The Chesterton Zoning Ordinance would appear to indicate too much, by far. That ordinance requires for a “regional” planned business or shopping center one space per 250 square feet of gross floor area. GK is proposing a total of 331,462 square feet of retail space. Do the math: 331,462 divided by 250 leaves 1,326 parking spaces. In short, GK wants to pour asphalt for 25 percent more spaces than mandated by Town Code.

More: the stormwater runoff from those nearly 30 acres of impervious surface—shimmering and simmering in the heat of a summer like this one—would flow into a 4.59-acre detention pond in the southeast quadrant of the development. That water, in turn, would be drained into Coffee Creek, a sensitive salmonid body of water. Runoff from the parking lot would not only carry with it various non-point source pollutants like oil, gasoline, and antifreeze, it would also be superheated and threaten Coffee Creek—and its salmon—with thermal pollution. At the very least planners should insist on a detention pond designed to drain from the bottom, where the colder water settles.

TIF

One undeniable benefit of the proposed retail center: the site falls squarely within Chesterton’s tax increment financing (TIF) district, and after redevelopment the property could be expected to generate a windfall in TIF revenues. No one can possibly say right now how great that windfall would be, but as it happens Redevelopment Commission President David Canright— managing editor of the Chesterton Tribune —recently urged the use of TIF moneys to get two projects in particular off square one: the extension of Dickinson Road; and the development of parks east of Ind. 49.

A word of caution here, however.

When Canright began appearing before the Town Council, in 1999, to advocate the creation of a TIF district, he encountered vociferous opposition from local attorney Terry Hiestand, who voiced his objections to TIF on numerous grounds but one especially: all too often TIF moneys are used to subsidize private developers by funding public improvements for which the developers should be obligated to pay themselves.

Canright agreed with Hiestand on this point and one of the principles which he advised the Town Council to embrace in creating a TIF district—and which the Town Council at the time never disavowed—was this one: TIF moneys should never bankroll any projects which developers by law must bankroll themselves.

That issue may emerge when GK appears before the Plan Commis-sion and the discussion begins about widening C.R. 1100N and installing traffic signals.

Retail

Another benefit of the proposed retail center: it would create a multitude of new jobs.

But good jobs?

Most of them would be in the lower-paying retail sector—clerks, cashiers, and stockers—and at a planning workshop in March the Town Council indicated fairly clearly the relatively low value which it attaches to those jobs—and the much greater value which it attaches to new, higher quality, employment in other sectors—when members reached this consensus on the subject of annexation: they would be inclined to look favorably on an annexation petition, should one ever come to them, of a proposed industrial or professional project, and less favorably or possibly not favorably at all on the annexation petition of a developer of a proposed retail project.

(Just to be clear: GK’s proposed retail center would not entail annexation.)

Retail versus industrial: the question of best and highest use has come full circle.

It’s worth noting that when, in 2001, the developers of the mixed-use Tamarack Plaza appeared before the Plan Commission, and drew forceful remonstrations from the residents of C.R. 100E and the Tamarack subdivision, one of the arguments which the developers’ attorney, Greg Babcock—now representing GK—marshaled in defense of the commercial component of the project was this one: the developers were expecting to attract professionals and firms in need of office space—engineers, lawyers, dentists, accountants—not retailers who generate high volumes of in-and-out and back-and-forth traffic. Now the residents of C.R. 100E and Tamarack are looking at the possibility of the single largest retail development in the history of the Town of Chesterton being built just down the street from their homes. Rail Road would no longer be a quiet, almost secret, way of avoiding the hassles of Ind. 49 and entering Coffee Creek Center. It would become the preferred way of accessing the GK site for everyone who lives west of Ind. 49.

If any of those residents, prior to buying or building their homes, had bothered to investigate the zoning of adjacent areas, they would have found the property immediately east of Ind. 49 and north of Rail Road to be an industrial district. And they could have made a calculation: the potential for heavy traffic at regular and predictable times of the day, morning and evening rush hour, shift change. Then they could have bought or built accordingly or opted not to.

The residents who did buy or build in good faith might reasonably be expected now to consider the conversion of that industrial district into a retail colossus a betrayal by their public officials.

 

Posted 7/20/2005