By SUZANNAH COUCH and ABIGAIL YOUMANS
Last week, the Brown County Commissioners approved rezoning 24 acres near State Road 135 South as general business despite a negative recommendation from the county Area Plan Commission. General business zoning allows for a multitude of uses including residential, agricultural, public facilities, businesses and recreation.
On April 26, the APC reviewed the rezone request before unanimously making a negative recommendation to the commissioners. The commissioners ultimately approve or deny rezone recommendations from the APC.
The 24-acre property sits on Morris Lane just off of State Road 135 South, has two residential homes, a horse stable with five stalls and a pasture.
It is also adjacent to the Brown County State Park.
Luke and Christine Neubauer are from Louisville, Kentucky and are in the process of purchasing the property from Mike Morris. Neighbors to the property attended the meeting and two spoke against the general business rezone.
The owners requested the property to be rezoned as general business from residential so that they can use both homes on the property as tourist rentals.
The homes are roughly 900 feet apart, planning and zoning director Christine Ritzmann said at the April meeting.
The current distance requirement between tourist homes set forth in the county’s tourist home guidelines is 1,320 feet, or one quarter of a mile.
Having the property rezoned would allow them to rent out both units, Luke Neubauer told the commission.
Luke Neubauer and his family often visit Brown County, bringing their camper. Luke Neubauer and his friends also enjoy mountain biking here, he told the APC last month.
He said they want to rent the homes out for tourists as well as have them for family and friends to stay in.
“We think that this property facility would be an excellent addition to tourist homes currently available in Brown County,” he said.
They would keep the property private and not overdevelop it, but they foresee wanting to add one or two more homes on the property at some point in the future, he said.
“We see a lot of potential here for drawing people to Brown County and think it could be a really cool place, for the town to have, for us to bring family and friends,” he told the commission.
There are four nearby properties zoned general business: the Brown County Humane Society, Camp Roberts, a property owned by Gerald Rea and Harmony Tree Resort, formerly Rawhide Ranch.
Rea’s property was zoned in 1980 as general business as a vehicle storage facility and is now used as a family recreational storage property.
Neubauer told the commission that he and his wife are “long-term thinkers” who would want to build slowly and not disrupt the unique feel of the property.
Ultimately the commission voted unanimously to make a negative recommendation to the commissioners.
APC member Kara Hammes said that her concern with the property being rezoned as general business it would not have as many limiting restrictions.
“You may have the best intentions and mean what you’re saying, but you could sell it and somebody else (who purchases it) may have completely different intentions,” she said to Luke Neubauer.
“You may change your mind and there’s really no control, the list is extremely long of what could be done with a GB (general business)-zoned area.”
A rezone stays with the property in the event the property is sold.
A staff report from the planning and zoning office recommended the rezone be approved, citing the proximity to a state highway and other properties zoned GB nearby. It also states that the property is over 300 feet from the highway, creating a buffer between guest use and traffic.
At the May 4 commissioners meeting, Ritzmann said the APC denied the rezone request “largely based on public comment.”
Neighbors speak up
Morris was the only person to speak in favor of the rezone at the APC meeting last month. He is the current owner of the property.
Two residents who share a driveway with Morris Lane, Melanie Voland and Joyce Muench, spoke against.
Voland told the commission that there are 11 residents in six homes in the neighborhood between the two creek slabs on 135 South, which she referred to as “retirement island.”
The desirability of Brown County as a place to retire should be “protected and enhanced,” she told the commission.
“We have moved here specifically for retirement,” Voland said. “We anticipated that our purchase choices would offer safety, security and the peace and quiet of Brown County’s rural atmosphere. We anticipated retiring in these homes uninterrupted by changes in our R1 (residential) zone.”
Voland said she wondered if the county had considered if there is an “overabundance” of overnight or vacation rentals in Brown County and how this affects affordable housing here.
“I wonder also how unchecked growth can contribute to the residential security of our retirement properties,” she said. “I believe that these questions invite serious discussion and targeted planning.”
She also told the commission that she wondered if the petitioners were aware of the increasing flood risks in the area.
In 2019, her property sustained “excessive damage” from the storm that breached Ogle Lake’s water system in the state park. That storm closed the state park for two weeks and it took Voland six months to recover from that rain event. She said she lost everything in her garage and outbuildings.
“Today, ours is a quiet residential neighborhood of majority retirees and soon-to-be retirees, including myself,” Voland said. “We like it that way and we’d like it to stay that way through our retirement years.”
Muench, who shares the same driveway, agreed with Voland.
She and her husband purchased their home on 135 South eight years ago.
“We’re going to have to share a road differently and be able to really communicate respectfully to each other and I’m scared to death,” she said.
Overall goals in the county’s comprehensive plan includes considering “the impact of changing land use development on adjoining landowners.”
APC member Andy Voils told the Neubauers he loved that they were attracted to the community, but part of what makes the area desirable is the solitude, the community and neighbors.
“I do understand your neighbors. They’re a community, they live together, they see each other. I don’t think they’re opposed to you guys, they’re opposed to not knowing who’s going to be there,” he said.
“From my position, I’m not inclined to approve a recommendation for GB, but I’d love to help you find a way to work through that process and make it make sense for you, to where you can have revenue and passive income, but still truly maintain the community feel.”
A planned unit development was suggested as an alternative to general business zoning, but was not discussed in depth at the meeting.
APC member Jane Gore said that general business was “a big bite” that could open the property up for a multitude of potential that the Neubauers were not presenting.
It opens that property up for a multitude of things that what you’re proposing is not favored of the neighbors, but what could happen there could be a lot worse than what you’re proposing,” she said.
“You want your neighbors to be happy with you, you don’t want them to be mad at you going in. We are here to address the situation of what’s best for the neighborhood.”
The Brown County Commissioners reviewed the rezone request at their May 4 meeting.
President Jerry Pittman said the commissioners voting against a recommendation from the APC happens “very infrequently, but it is not without precedent.”
He spoke about how a property in Gnaw Bone requested a general business rezone a few years ago and that was also voted against by the APC, but then the commissioners approved it because it met goals in the comprehensive plan and was also fronted by a highway. He said that he did not understand APC’s objection to this rezone request.
“This to me fits in the comprehensive plan. It is on the state highway. It has good frontage. It seems to meet all of the criteria we would normally like to see. INDOT (Indiana Department of Transportation) is OK with it. They have 24 acres there and they would like to as well as use two existing homes possibly build two more. Anyone who stays there pays 5% innkeepers tax. I just don’t see a problem with it personally,” he said.
Resident Sherrie Mitchell encouraged the commissioners to look beyond approving the rezone for tourist rentals and to consider all of the other property uses allowed under general business without a special exception.
“There are regulations and laws about how you’re supposed to make this decision. I don’t see you making them appropriately. What is everything that can be put in a general business district and would it be a good place for that in this particular area?” she said.
“You’re supposed to be looking at everything that can go into a general business district. Would you put that on that property or behind these houses? Because I did look up this property and it is behind houses along the road right there. What are those other uses in general business? Would you put them there?” she asked, citing “light industrial” property uses allowed under GB.
Pittman said this rezone meets “the same criteria” for other properties rezoned general business, like being on a state highway.
Because the driveway to the 24-acre property is limited the owners would not be able to get a commercial driveway permit, which would be required for uses like light industrial.
“That will limit their functions anyway,” Commissioner Diana Biddle said.
If two more tourist homes are built on the property, the owners would have to get a sub-minor commercial driveway permit, which is not the same as a regular commercial permit.
The commissioners ultimately decided to approve the rezone with a condition limiting the number of homes on the property to five.
“I am thinking give them the option (to build three more) without them having to come back to build three more,” Biddle said.
“It is 24 acres, so there is plenty of room.”