Neighbors oppose zoning change for large tourist rental

The Brown County Area Plan Commission is sending a negative opinion to the Brown County Commissioners this week as they consider whether or not to change zoning to eventually allow a large, historic house on Lanam Ridge Road to operate as an overnight lodging business.

Property owner Craig Parsons, who lives in Indianapolis, was asking the APC for a zoning change from residential (R2) to forest reserve (FR) for the nearly 11-acre parcel. His goal is to offer the nine-bedroom home as one large tourist rental for groups, he told the APC.

It had already been listed on Airbnb.com for several months and had been rented by guests before neighbors contacted the planning and zoning office and it was discovered that the property didn’t have the proper permissions. The home had been used for that purpose off and on for more than 50 years, Parsons said.

The home was termed a “hotel” in zoning office paperwork rather than a tourist rental — though “hotel” conjures up images that Parsons said weren’t accurate for what he is trying to do. For instance, it won’t be rented to multiple groups at the same time, he said, and only on weekends.

The county’s zoning ordinance caps the size of a tourist rental at five bedrooms when this house has nine, and there are already three other tourist homes in the area that would conflict with the distance separation recommended among tourist homes in the ordinance. So, going for a hotel was one avenue that Planning Director Chris Ritzmann said he could try, Parsons said.

To get approval for a hotel, though, the land would need a zoning change, because hotels cannot be put on R2-zoned land. They are allowed in FR-zoned land.

Two APC members said that what would actually be happening on the land didn’t really fit the definitions or intent in the ordinance.

APC member Deborah Bartes read the definition for “forest reserve,” which is “to include land that is for the most part rough terrain and where there is extensive public ownership of forest lands.”

“I don’t see that on this property,” Bartes said.

APC member Jane Gore said that the zoning change request with the ultimate goal of putting a hotel there seemed like “a workaround.” “That doesn’t fly with me,” she said.

Five residents of Lanam Ridge Road came to the meeting to show opposition. No one but the petitioner spoke in favor of it.

Immediate neighbor Mike Laros said that even though the neighborhood around this property includes three other tourist rentals, it is still very much a residential neighborhood. Two of those rentals are one-bedroom cabins on the property where he and his wife live, and another one is not currently being used as a tourist rental because their daughter and her family are living there full-time.

Laros said that a previous owner of this property was telling potential buyers that it couldn’t become a tourist rental so they shouldn’t even be thinking of buying it for that purpose.

Still, “it’s been run as a tourist home for the last two years anyway, and I’ve come in and asked why and how did they do that, and I’ve not gotten good answers,” Laros said. “So, to me, this is a complete workaround to avoid the special exception process. …

“I’d love the whole place to be forest reserve. I think that’s a wonderful zoning request to go to forest reserve,” he added. “The next step of saying you can take a piece of property and make into commercial right there in an R2 neighborhood and allow this to take place, I can’t understand it.”

Parsons, a commercial contractor, said that he’d put at least $300,000 into the place, which he called “kind of a local landmark.” He said his neighbor told him his mother used to operate it as a lodge when the land was part of Yellowwood State Forest in the 1950s, so it had a history similar to how he wants to use it.

Resident Kyle Birkemeier said he worried less about the property being used for tourists than about it getting a permanent zoning change that could open it up to other, less desirable uses, like “a scrapyard,” if it ever passed to a different owner with different ideas.

Other concerns neighbors mentioned included additional traffic for this business and what that would do to the condition and safety of Lanam Ridge, which Laros estimated hadn’t been repaved since the late ‘90s. They also said it was “bad precedent” to rezone land to allow commercial uses in a residential neighborhood.

APC member Andy Voils said he does see a problem with changing the zoning to FR because it does open it up to other uses, but it seems like people bring up the same objections every time a person tries to invest in Brown County.

“There’s that constant pull between people who live here and people who want to visit here. But if people don’t visit here, nobody’s going to live here. If there’s no industry, if people stop coming to Brown County, there are people that don’t have jobs; it’s not a desirable location. I think it is a great responsibility for us to figure out the right way. It just seems like we’re hearing the same kind of argument for and against on multiple cases, and I don’t know how to make it more clear. We’ve got to figure something out.”

He added that if you go a couple more miles up Lanam Ridge Road, there are several more tourist rentals, and neighbors might see the road being busy, but only on weekends.

He gave an example from his own neighborhood: the farm which Herb and Nancy Brown bought. When he was kid, it used to belong to a Mr. Taggart, who would sit outside in a lawn chair and wave to people as they went by, Voils said. The Browns bought it when Mr. Taggart died, invested a lot of money into it, went through the proper steps and turned it into a wedding venue.

“A couple times a week I may have to stop and let people cross the road in their gowns and their tuxes. Am I inconvenienced? Yeah, kinda. I just honk and wave and add to the experience,” Voils said. “What are you gonna do?

“Yeah, it’s weird that there’s a wedding in a field where I used to get water out of the pump when everything else is dry. That’s kind of where we’re at. There aren’t too many Mr. Taggarts around anymore.”

A few APC members suggested that Parsons might try a different way to get it approved, like applying for a tourist rental special exception and seeing if the guidelines could be altered to allow it.

“I think that this would be a lovely property for the inventory of tourist rentals in Brown County. It would be perfect,” Bartes said. “But I don’t like the avenue of this approach.”

Gore made a motion to send a negative opinion to the Brown County Commissioners with a vote of 6-0, with APC President Carol Bowden absent.

The county commissioners will have the final say on the zoning change request. If they vote in favor of it, then Parsons could go before the Brown County Board of Zoning Appeals to get a special exception for a hotel so that his business would be operating legally.

The rezoning request was to be put on the agenda for the next county commissioners meeting on Wednesday, July 7 at 2 p.m. at the County Office Building.

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FR (forest reserve) districts are established to include land that is for the most part rough terrain and where there is extensive public ownership of forest lands.

R2 (secondary residence) districts are established to include areas that have been subject to urbanization on a scattered pattern, principally along county highways.

Fifty-eight uses are allowed in both FR and R2 zoning. Some require the granting of a special exception and some do not.

Uses allowed in both FR and R2 zoning that do not require a special exception are: single-family dwelling; two-family dwelling; farm seasonal worker housing; fraternity, sorority or student cooperative; home for the aged; or a nursing home.

The only uses that are allowed in R2 zoning but not in FR zoning are: multi-family dwelling; one-operator barber or beauty shop; mortuary; or sales barn for livestock resale. All of those do require a special exception and are subject to specific requirements such as lot size, parking, etc., except for a mortuary.

The uses allowed in FR but not R2 are: bottled gas distribution and storage; general industry; light industry; junkyard; liquid fertilizer storage and distribution; mineral extraction, borrow pit, topsoil removal, storage areas; petroleum tank farm; slaughterhouse; commercial facility for breeding non-farm fowl or animals; hotel or motel; kennel; and travel trailer park. Each of these requires a special exception and is subject to specific requirements such as lot size, parking, etc.

The manufacturing, storage or use of explosives also is allowed in FR and does not require a special exception, but does require a review, public hearing and approval by the Area Plan Commission.

— Brown County Zoning Ordinance analysis by Christine Ritzmann, plan director

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