Chesterton Tribune

How many houses is too many? Chesterton Town Council seeks to diversify growth

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Their names are redolent of the English countryside, of dewy summer mornings in the shire, of golden days in greener times: Oak Place, Rose Hill Estates, Westwood Manor, Abercrombie Woods, Golfview Estates.

They are, however, only residential subdivisions—or planned unit developments—and in the last few years the Chesterton Plan Commission has approved—or endorsed—a bunch of them. By the count of planner and now Town Council Member Mike Bannon, R-5th, something like 500 single-family units have been platted since he took his seat on the commission in 2000.

And while those subdivisions are proof, were anyone to need it, of the desirability of living in Chesterton, the cost to a municipality of serving homeowners—in terms of police and fire protection, road and sidewalk maintenance, stormwater drainage, trash collection, and park upkeep—has historically been greater than the revenues generated by those homeowners’ property taxes. Residential simply hasn’t paid its own way. Business and industrial have, though, and more, by assuming a proportionately greater share of the property-tax burden and by using a proportionately lesser share of municipal services.

How tax restructuring and court-ordered reassessment may change that balance is, at this point, anybody’s guess, but as Bannon suggested Monday night at a planning workshop convened by the council to establish a rough agenda for its next four years, the time in any case may have come in Chesterton’s history to put the brake on residential development and encourage business and light-industrial instead. “How many more residences do we welcome into the community?” he asked.

In fact, planners have very little discretion when it comes to subdivisions pure and simple. Under state statute they have no choice but to approve primary and secondary plats when developers meet certain criteria. Yet Chesterton is growing not simply in population but in acreage as well, as it pursues an ad hoc policy of friendly annexation, and here, Bannon said, the council may have an opportunity to shake up the mix. Under Town Code all parcels of land annexed by Chesterton come into the town with an R-1 zone to give planners the maximum degree of control over their use. Should developers wish to do something else with them, they must apply for re-zones or variances or otherwise develop them as PUDs.

Perhaps, as Bannon broached the idea Monday, that provision of the code should be amended to give parcels annexed by the town a different zone. Call it, he said for want of a better term, a B-1A zone: a version of the most restrictive of all business zones, the B-1 of the Downtown, without its peculiarities, such as zero setbacks. Such a zone would put the burden of proof, so to speak, on the developers who simply want to build subdivisions, would give planners a firmer handle on residential creep, and would signal the town’s interest in fostering economic development.

Bannon’s colleagues liked his suggestion, as far as it went, and they agreed with him on the need in particular to diversify the town’s tax base. Business and especially industrial development would not only create jobs, noted Member Sharon Darnell, D-4th—at a time when meaningful jobs desperately need to be created in Duneland—but would spread the property-tax burden more evenly and generate revenues sufficient to maintain the quality of life which has made Chesterton such an attractive place for the Lake- and Cook-county crowd. “We have to have these kinds of developments,” she said.

As Darnell quickly added, however, there’s a hitch: not every resident is eager to see the sort of economic development envisioned by the council.

And there’s another hitch: companies are hardly beating down Chesterton’s doors.

What, then, is the council’s role in economic development? Does it even have a role?

Bannon believes that it does. Chesterton is a wonderful place to live and work, with a quaint Downtown, safe neighborhoods, and fine parks, served by an excellent school system, situated close to the dunes and possessed of such added amenities as the Coffee Creek Watershed Conservancy and the first-class golf course at the Sand Creek Country Club. His point: “We have a great story to tell,” a story which entrepreneurs and light-industrialists in search of a place to re-locate need to hear. In short, the council can find ways, and make ways, aggressively to promote the town.

But the council has one more task, members concurred, and it may be the tougher of the two: persuading residents wary of economic development of its benefits, of its potential actually to lower their own property taxes and at the same time to increase the town’s revenues. “Not in my back yard” may be a prevailing attitude in some neighborhoods, Darnell observed, but “the public has to be more “ of the importance of economic development. “It’s nice to have residential but it doesn’t pay the lion’s share of services,” she said. “We have to make it understood on the town council that we need more commercial.”

Take, for instance, the development of the Lakeshore Bone and Joint Institute at Coffee Creek Center. Why only the one medical facility? Why not an entire medical campus? “Health care may be what we should focus on,” Darnell ventured.

“Another Mayo?” Bannon asked.

“There’s never a time when you don’t need it,” she replied.

For Member Frank Sessa, D-4th, the council may simply have to bite the bullet, make the hard decisions, and proceed regardless of the political consequences. “If we really believe this is the right direction for the town,” he said, “we can’t worry about the handful of people who bitch about everything.”

Priorities

Certainly the council will need to find additional sources of revenue if members are to have any hope of acting on the shopping list of priorities on which they reached a consensus Monday:

• The Chesterton Police Department, as Member John Kosmatka, R-1st, has said on previous occasions, is underpaid and undermanned. If at all possible, its officers need raises and its ranks need swelling. Not that other town employees are overpaid, Clerk-Treasurer Gayle Polakowski said—their wages could use a boost too—but a rough parity with the pay scales in other local departments would help keep Chesterton’s police officers from seeking employment elsewhere, after the CPD has expended time and money on their initial training.

• In any event, Bannon said, at issue is the public’s safety. Chesterton’s drug problem is significant, addicts are turning to thievery and burglary to support their habits, and while no community will ever eradicate the use of drugs, the town can make it risky and inconvenient for the dealers to do their business here. And so, Bannon urged his colleagues: the council should find a way to re-up or else replace, when it expires, the three-year federal grant which has allowed the CPD to place a dedicated school resources officer in the Duneland School Corporation; and it should find a way to allow the CPD to place an officer with the Porter County Drug Task Force. “I’ve got young kids,” he said, “so this is pretty high on my radar screen.”

• Darnell had an idea of her own: the improvement and beautification of South Calumet Road as a major gateway into town. Such a project would entail the elimination of the open ditches along South Calumet and the curbing and guttering of the roadway; the construction of sidewalks on the east side of South Calumet from the Chesterton Post Office south to C.R. 1100N; the signalization of the intersection at South Calumet and C.R. 100E; and the placement of decorative street lamps. What about the town’s other gateways? Bannon asked. His two ideas, funding permitting: the construction of ribbon curbs along both sides of Porter Ave. in the area of Morgan Park; and the burial of utility lines where possible.

• No one at this point really knows the full impact of reassessment, but members are fearful of one possible effect: the spike in some residents‚ property-tax bills could act as a disincentive to spend the money necessary to improve their homes and property. Indeed, those bills could prompt some homeowners simply to sell. “You’re going to see a greater turnover in those homes,” Crone said. “I guarantee it.” And though Bannon acknowledged that “there’s nothing we can do about reassessment,” he did wonder whether the council could make available some mechanism by which homeowners would have the incentive to maintain their homes, along the lines of the revolving loan fund which has assisted storefront businesses in the Downtown.

• Meanwhile, Darnell wants to see the council continue to ensure that all town residents have access to town services. Thus members agreed at their last meeting to pursue a grant which would fund the engineering of a water line to Crocker, while the Utility has already secured a grant, thanks to the assistance of U.S. Pete Viscloksy, D-1st, which will fund the connection to Chesterton’s sanitary sewer system of a cluster of homes at the terminus of North Calumet Road.

• Ind. 49 has never been far from the minds of any council, and this latest council is no exception. Darnell, while taking note of the fact that the LaPorte District of the Indiana Department of Transportation finally installed a left turn signal at the intersection of Ind. 49 and Porter Ave., took note of one other fact: the intersection of Ind. 49 and C.R. 1100N needs a similar left turn signal. Members concurred, and resolved to pursue a closer relationship with the LaPorte District and, failing tangible results in that direction, to go over the head of the LaPorte District all the way to Indianapolis if necessary. Bannon remarked that one sure way to improve the situation on Ind. 49 would be to remove some of the traffic from it, by extending Dickinson Road north to Indian Boundary Road and south to the Indiana Toll Road. A long-term project to be sure, President Bob Crone, R-3rd, said. Yes, Bannon agreed, but one which could be financially feasible should the tax increment district yield a reliable revenue stream. Yet another reason, Bannon added, to pursue a program of economic development.

“It seems like on a lot of these issues we’re on the same page,” Bannon concluded at the end of the workshop.

“I’m just thankful to you guys for taking the time to do this,” Crone said.

 

Posted 2/3/2004