Letter: Responsible Growth Alliance of Westfield growing a better city

Editor,

More than a decade ago, presenting his idea before the Town Council of Westfield, Chris R. White and his attorney, Matt Skelton, managed to get Aurora Planned Unit Development passed with just three votes of approval. As the 2007-2009 recession hit hard in the U.S., the 314-acre mixed-use development sat dormant in the northeastern portion of Westfield. Seemingly out of nowhere, adjoining property owners were put on legal notice in October that Chris R. White was breathing life back into Aurora by seeking an amendment to rezone the project with the city.

Many changes have taken place in those 10 years. The town became a city in January 2008 and Mayor Andy Cook was elected and has been re-elected. In 2009, Matt Skelton was appointed as the city’s director of economic and community development and holds that title today. Grand Park was built as Westfield’s main economic driver, Grand Junction, is underway. Chatham Hills Golf Course opened as a premiere community in northern Westfield and U.S. 31 was upgraded.

Likewise, there have been many changes to Mr. White’s Aurora PUD. The original plan called for a 24-acre “Sunrise Park,” 130 acres of single-family and multi-family housing with 797 units and 158 acres of zoning for Light Business, General Business and Enclosed Industrial. The 2016 Aurora amendment asks for the removal of the park, the home sites have been reduced to a mere 67 acres with 250 units and the commerce, business and shops areas amass 250 acres of the project.

Members of a citizen’s action group, working under the name Responsible Growth Alliance of Westfield seemingly came out of nowhere, to speak in opposition to the amended Aurora PUD. Wearing matching yellow T-shirts branded with the statement, “Aurora Hurts Homeowners,” this group of affected homeowners and concerned citizens brought more than 15 talking points before the Advisory Planning Commission Dec. 9.  Under the direction of their lawyers, Rory O’Bryan and Patricia McCrory, of Harrison & Moberly, LLC, RGAW delivered compelling arguments for the commission’s consideration. Although RGAW would like to see the whole Aurora PUD, both old and new, disappear, despite 10 long years on inactivity, Matt Skelton has confirmed, “The existing Aurora PUD (06-55) is presently in effect and remains in effect until some legislative act changes that status.”

In a county that relies heavily on the use of roundabouts, a large point of contention for homeowners is traffic.  RGAW member Melissa Hinshaw orated a list of concerns from the Hamilton County commissioner, two Hamilton County councilors and two contacts at INDOT about a rumored traffic light at the intersection of Ind. 38, the East Street extension and Anthony Road.  Although Mr. White’s engineer assures the validity and applicability of a 2007 traffic study, Mr. White may have already spent the first of any potential revenue from the Aurora Tax Incremental Finance District. In a November 2016 letter to Kevin Todd, senior planner for the City of Westfield, he explains the cost of this light will be “borne by future TIF funds, road impact fees or other sources at the time a signal is needed.”

Sitting right in the middle of Aurora is Providence Wildlife Rehabilitation, Inc., and the property is owned by Kristen & Keith Heitman. Annually, Providence takes in between 1,100 and 1,500 creatures,  60-65 percent of which are birds.  Providence, a 501(c)3 non-profit, staffed by Kristen Heitman and volunteer staff, including utilizing volunteer veterinarian staff, offers educational programs and takes in animals from Michigan City to Evansville and even neighboring states. Their location is a big factor in rehabbing the animals in their setting most conducive to the process.  The rural setting offers serenity and quiet, allowing the animals to be in a natural environment. Minimizing the human element is best for the recovery of captive animals. Devoted to 20 years of service, Kristen fears that Aurora will change everything about operating Providence Wildlife Rehabilitation at its current location and threaten the good name of the services.

Just north and bordering Aurora is “For the Birds of Indiana,” a nonprofit domestic corporation, owned and operated by Liz and Chris Hatton. Their website notes that urban sprawl makes survival very difficult for wildlife in our area. The Hattons care for and raise or rehabilitate and release wild song birds, raptors and many water birds on their property.

Nestled along 202nd Street in the Aurora PUD is the Pleasant View Cemetery. Ground-penetrating radar surveys of the area, conducted in 2007, proved the existence of 19 unmarked graves, some of which are believed to be the graves of slaves. Inside the cemetery lie the graves of two Civil War soldiers.

Bordering the Aurora project is Robert’s Woods, the largest stand of unfettered trees in Hamilton County. It serves as a natural path and home to woodland animals who roam the farm fields of this rural and pristine setting. The ramifications of an industrial park could be detrimental to this habitat.

Aurora, under Mr. White’s direction, is bordered by and sprinkled with homes. Little effort has been made to protect or guard the residents of Westfield-Washington Township from the proposed Open Industrial zoning. The zoning is so broad neighbors might expect to enjoy everything from fast food restaurants to an adult entertainment establishment to a warehouse distribution center.

Although RGAW had hoped for a negative recommendation at the Dec. 9 meeting, it was suggested that the property owners meet with the developer and his attorney. The group worked fastidiously to devise a satisfactory plan that they believe will protect their homes and the township at large to take to the table. The 40 pages supplied to the city by Dec. 15 was a detailed package of their best and collective efforts. It includes reforestation buffers and ponding, realignment of the road within the park, a suggestion to rename the planned unit development and cites Westfield’s own Comprehensive Plan. Alas, the face-to-face was cancelled by the Aurora attorney of record, Russell Brown, remarking only that given the many changes the homeowners requested, they didn’t feel a meeting would prove fruitful.

RGAW admits they are not developers or architects, nor engineers or urban planners. They have no more knowledge about building industrial parks than most ,but they do have passion, lots of passion, and the right to protect their property. Although their plan may be imperfect, it could have been a great asset to Mr. White. Those APC members and city councilors who have now had the occasion to see RGAW’s plan definitely seem to appreciate the group’s enthusiasm and regard for their own community.

Responsible Growth Alliance has asked that a formal concept be presented which might better explain Mr. White’s vision for this massive industrial park, as no such rendering has been presented recently or over the last 10 years.  Great products are being presented in neighboring communities like Zionsville, with Creekside Office Park and the announcement of the Fishers Culinary Arts Park.  Positioned east of Grand Park and Chatham Hills and adjacent to U.S. 31, Aurora’s highly visible Industrial and Business Park will be a gateway to Westfield. RGAW has been left wondering when city officials will decide that it’s time to build a better Westfield. The amendment to Aurora PUD is scheduled to appear on the Jan. 4 APC agenda.

Sincerely,

Keith Heitman and the members of the Responsible Growth Alliance of Westfield