Folksinger Joni Mitchell famously sang “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” in her environmental anthem against spoiling nature and overbuilding. Admittedly, she was writing about Hawaii – not Fishers, Indiana. But to hundreds of homeowners in the area of 96th and Mollenkopf, their “gateway to Geist” (as they call it) is a paradise, and it’s in the sights of those who would like to put up another parking lot.
Here’s the back story: There are 7-½ acres on the northeast side of 96th and Mollenkopf that are owned by seven families who currently have houses on the land. Those families have banded together and would like to have their property zoned commercial. Obviously, that means they want to sell it to developers; getting it rezoned is the first step. To that end, the Fishers Advisory Plan Commission heard a petition at its meeting August 14 from the landowners. (Download Gordon Byers’ petition)
In his presentation, the property owners’ attorney, Gordon Byers, gave some historical background that the area in question was once under the jurisdiction of the town of Noblesville and that some of the residents have lived on the property for more than 50 years, pre-dating the Geist and 96th Street development. By way of explanation of why his clients want to sell, Byers emphasized that the area has changed dramatically and that because of road improvements, the petitioners have lost 60 feet of front yard and are now on a primary arterial road. He told the commission that this move to rezone has been “baking in the oven” since about 2005 when they first proposed changes to the zoning. He also pointed out that it is unusual that he would be representing the actual owners of the land and not developers in this bid to allow commercial development.
Of course, there are many major concerns about what would actually be developed on the land, and the details of that have not been made public. Byers explained that there is a contract that all seven of the landowners have signed that binds them to sell all of their property as one entity to one developer and that there are details in the contract that are not being made public – a point that didn’t seem to go over very well with those in attendance who oppose the plan.
What he could share was that they want C1 and C2 commercial designation. C2 would be on the west end of the property and would be a building for retail and service-type businesses. To the east would be office buildings which are designated as C1. He emphasized that there would be no fast food or gas stations going up on the land. Byers said any building plan would be sensitive to the surrounding neighbors, a comment that was met with groans by the 50 or so members of the audience. He told the commission that it would not be a big-box retail store, it would have a pitched roof, it would be constructed of stone with upgraded signage and lighting, and that there would be a buffer brick wall on the backside and a mound on the eastern flank. He said they were open to keeping a tree buffer and that there would be a retention area built to deal with drainage issues.
When the Commission president opened up the meeting for remarks from any interested parties, there was no shortage of hands that went up from the crowd. In all, about ten residents addressed the Commission. Some came prepared with written remarks, some brought maps and other visual aids, others brought signed petitions, but most just spoke from the heart about what the area means to them and how they don’t want to see it altered. Many of those who made remarks either back up to the property in question or look at it from across the street. They fear that commercial development will spoil the natural beauty of the area, will inevitably create more parking that cannot be hidden by walls and plants, and will, eventually, harm their property values.
Jim Allan, who has lived in Geist Woods for many years, was the first of many who pointed out that there are already three commercial buildings west of the land that have nine vacancies, and he questioned the need for more commercial property. Others mentioned that since the roundabout was built, traffic has been flowing well through the area. However, they are concerned that if more commercial property is added, it will add more traffic. This could undo the positive impact of the new and improved road and could be a safety hazard for children in the area. Several people commented on how they now have a beautiful back yard and if a new strip mall goes up, they’ll be looking at a wall.
The president of the Geist Woods Homeowner’s Association spoke of changing the fabric of the area and how even if it might happen slowly, it does do damage. Next, Matt Watkins addressed the Commission and spoke bluntly about what he feels is the motivation for the petition: “It’s very evident that whenever you have everything you need within a three-mile radius – Walmarts, CVS’s, grocery stores – that it’s greed at work here and greed is the motivating factor for this and it doesn’t benefit the community at all. And it really poses a safety concern. It really impacts the road construction that they now have made so beautiful and such a great redesign. There will only be more risk now and potentially will cause more accidents and safety concerns.”
Most of the people who spoke are long-time residents of the area who bought here because of the beauty and tranquility of the area. One of those residents is Jennifer Bennett who told the Commission, “If I wanted to live in an area where commercial development was in my back yard, I would have bought a house there instead of here. I believe the majority of the residents are in agreement with me.”
Several committee members spoke before it was voted to delay a decision until next month’s meeting when more questions can be answered and input can be received from the public. The majority of the commission members appeared reluctant to approve the petition with the exception of Jay Kirby who seemed to have a somewhat favorable attitude when he indicated that he would like to see development in that area and that flexibility is needed.
There were certainly a lot of impassioned pleas made at the meeting, but there was no shouting or name calling. The Commission President, Warren Harling, commented at the end that he appreciates the “kinder approach” and hopes it can continue since these issues can get very personal. The fact that residents spoke with great civility about an issue that is extremely important to them and that they fear will change their very lives says a lot about us as a people and how our democracy works.
In the room where the Commission meeting was held, you couldn’t help but notice numerous plaques heralding Money Magazine’s choosing of Fishers for its “Best Places to Live” list several years running. One would question whether the number of strip malls Fishers has figured into that selection process.
By the way, the rest of Joni Mitchell’s song goes like this:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.
Click here to download the Byers plan.