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Land Use Panel Meets for First Time

by Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Indiana Capital Chronicle

Published: Friday, September 15, 2023

by Leslie Bonilla Muñiz Indiana Capital Chronicle

A state task force focused on land use delved into site readiness, regulation challenges and demographic changes during its first meeting last Friday.

Legislation creating the task force gave it five issues to examine: growth trends, growth barriers, developer siting, local self-investment and food insecurity.

But all roads lead to one destination for task force co-chair and farmer Rep. Kendall Culp, who said he's hoping to learn how Hoosiers can "bring economic growth to our communities."

"And that isn't just rural communities, just because I have a rural district," Culp, (R-Rensselaer), added. "It was very specific that this is urban, suburban and rural communities. And I think we're gonna find out there's a lot of similarities in the issues and concerns in each of those communities."

Co-chair Sen. Blake Doriot (R-Goshen), previously served as Elkhart County surveyor for 25 years, and now runs his own land surveying business.

The task force includes additional lawmakers from both parties, and non-lawmakers with experience in agriculture, economic development, food, real estate, residential construction, planning and more.

Preparing a site for construction can make or break a project, various industry presenters told the task force Friday.

Businesses often consider the availability of water and wastewater service, broadband service, and other infrastructure necessities, along with the workforce available.

But some parts of Indiana still aren't connected, and extending infrastructure to serve a development can make it prohibitively expensive.

Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg), said that's "holding back" rural development.

"In part of my (district), people are drinking filtered pond water and cistern water," Leising added. "There's no water they can reach through a well, and there's no infrastructure for a real water system there."

Developers said utility challenges, particularly in hooking up to wastewater services, were further crunching the housing supply.

"We're trying to catch up," said task force member Ryan Kennedy, a Lafayette-based builder-developer. "And it takes so long to get these projects even to a shovel-ready state Anything that we can do to continue to expand our utilities would be a great thing for us."

Lawmakers have approved a revolving loan fund to help finance housing-related infrastructure work, with an emphasis on communities with under 50,000 residents. But House Enrolled Act 1005, worth $75 million over two years, only recently went into effect.

The state has also received nearly $900 million in federal broadband grants, and has put its own money toward such efforts, but the real work—implementation—is ahead.

The Indiana Economic Development Corp., a quasi-public agency, often works with interested companies on site identification. And it's gone further, surveying the state to identify nearly 1,800 potential sites, said Senior Vice President of Community Affairs Mark Wasky.

Some of those are mega sites—like the mammoth development in Boone County—that the IEDC and others are getting shovel-ready.

Local governments should also invest in site-readiness, said Indiana Economic Development Assn. board member Mike Perleberg.

That means knowing what kind of industry a locality wants to attract—advanced technology or agribusiness, for example—and tailoring sites to industry needs, he said.

"Communities kind of have to control their own destiny as far as how they want to how aggressive they want to be on economic development," Perleberg added.

Density can make infrastructure adds more cost-efficient—but developers on Friday took shots at local land use regulations they said prohibit such development.

National Homes, for example, mass-produced starter housing for the influx of soldiers returning from World War II—and for their growing families.

"They were great houses that a lot of people still live in today (but) you couldn't rebuild that house in most communities across state of Indiana, because the zoning regulations don't allow it," Indiana Builders Assn. CEO Rick Wajda said.

Local governments can use zoning—a way to regulate how property in their communities can be used—to set safety, environmental and other standards. But developers said zoning can also outlaw efficient development.

"Smaller lot sizes allow us to build more houses: less infrastructure cost, less roads, less land that we have to convert from some other use to residential housing," Wajda added. "But a lot of communities don't allow for that to occur."

Michael Dale, who directs Zionsville's community and economic development efforts, said Hoosier communities could update their long-range planning documents, particularly with provisions allowing denser and mixed-use developments.

Smaller minimums for lot sizes and setbacks—the distance between a building and the street—could also boost development, he said, along with incentives for infill development.

"Many (people) throughout the state are leery of growth. They like their rural environments," Dale said, referring to local opposition to new developments. " But to try to prevent growth is really, in my view, damaging to a local community or local economy."

"I view it like a tree or a shrub," he added. "If it's not growing, it's dying."

Lawmakers appeared amenable.

"We want to be able to infill our areas that are blighted—how do we get the message across that you're going to have to allow apartment complexes?" Doriot asked Wajda. "We had a community, Middlebury, (and a) wonderful apartment complex coming in, multifamily. And everybody went, 'Oh no.'"

Quality of life was top of mind for presenters and task force members alike.

Prospective businesses, the IEDC's Wasky said, "want to invest in communities that are investing in themselves."

"Companies are expecting to see that we have the capacity to grow the population and retain the existing workforce," Wasky said. " They're asking us what we are doing at the state and local level to invest in creating a really high-quality sense of place that people want to stay in or move to."

That includes affordable housing, childcare, good schools, health care, walkable spaces and more.

And individual Americans are beginning to move where they want to live—and finding jobs there after the fact—rather than the other way around.

It's why Indiana recently authorized a second $500 million round of its Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative, known as READI 2.0: to boost the state's quality of life, place and opportunity.

The task force will meet next on Oct. 2, and then for the third and final time on Nov. 14.

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