A Message from Joe Conn
NWI Green Party Chair
A hotly contested, local and cross-partisan environmental issue could be a litmus test for winning candidates in the Hobart municipal election Nov. 7.
It should come as no surprise; the Green Party has been on the right side of this issue from jump street.
Republicans and Democrats, however, are split, with candidates from both major parties supporting – and opposing -- what most environmentalists and many Hobart voters clearly understand to be the right thing to do.
It remains to be seen, however, whether voters in Hobart, a largely working-class community that historically leans Democrat, will educate themselves on which candidates support the environmentally responsible position and split their tickets accordingly.
What’s shaking things up – and may prompt a lot of careful picking and choosing come November – is whether or not the mayor and a small group of his city planners and economic development staff, plus a narrow majority of city council members, should continue their efforts to promote their ill-conceived plan to develop a huge industrial park on more than 660 acres of farmland south of 61st Avenue around Colorado Street.
Last summer, the city took an early step in that direction when it re-zoned 157 acres of farmland there from R-3 residential to M-1 industrial in keeping with recommendations in the city’s future land use plan map (MP 16) as amended by council resolution in early 2016.
As the Green Party candidate for Hobart City Council At-Large, for practical and environmental reasons, I opposed an industrial park at this location when it came up last year, and I still oppose it now.
- It’s simply the wrong place to put it.
- The nearby road infrastructure can’t support it.
- It’s closely bounded on three sides by quality residential development, including homes in the $400,000 to $500,000 range.
- The site is upstream from and less than a mile south of our 300-acre Hobart Prairie Grove and Oakland Savanna Trail sections of the Indiana Dunes National Park.
- Finally, these farm fields comprise an array of glacial loam soil varieties, some of the best soil in Indiana for growing grapes, according to a landowner in that area experienced with viticulture. The suitability of the land for grapes has been confirmed by an extension specialist at Purdue.
Personally, I’d rather see wineries, estate mansions and maybe a few related restaurants, wine- and cheese- tasting and small entertainment venues springing up there, similar to those in Southwest Michigan, not dozens of massive concrete boxes, warehouses and truck terminals as would be the inevitable consequences under the city’s plan.
This political pot has been boiling over since winter 2022 when, Becknell Industrial, a Carmel, IN,-based industrial park developer and manager, began asking city officials to approve a re-zone of 157 acres of what had been, historically, corn and soybean fields at the southeast corner of 61st and Colorado.
Along with its permitted agricultural use, the property also had been zoned for residential development since about 1945, but it had been farmed for decades before that, as had all the rest of the 660 acres of nearby farmland targeted by the city for M-1 rezoning in its future land use map.
After first delaying a vote in the face strong public opposition to Becknell’s petition, the plan commission eventually gave Becknell its approval, with one dissenting vote, that of Plan Commission President, Maria Galka, citing her concerns over the increase in truck traffic.
The Becknell request then passed the Hobart City Council by the narrowest of margins, a 4-3 vote.
In the months leading up to that vote, the plan commission and council meetings were jammed with protestors, both in person and online.
A grassroots opposition group, No Re-Zone/Hobart Is Our Home, had sprung up in February 2020, organized first around paper petitions, then a No Re-Zone Facebook page, and then an online petition that garnered more than 1,600 signatures against the industrial park plan.
Becknell’s re-zone request claimed the area was blighted and referenced the obscure, 2016 amendment to the city’s planning map green-lighting the land for industrial use.
If fully developed, the 660-acre industrial zone could draw as many as 2,100 truck trips a day to an area without adequate road infrastructure, based on an extrapolation from truck traffic data provided, under questioning from Galka, by a Becknell representative.
A retired worker from the city’s street department testified at one public hearing that both the pavement and the substructure of 61st Avenue would buckle under the pounding from that expected truck traffic volume, while Colorado Street, the proposed main entrance way to the Becknell development, what he called “a farm road,” would fare even worse.
And yet, in the months since the close council vote, the city’s planning department, the plan commission and the city council have doubled down on the industrial park idea. They’ve been pushing forward with an update of the city’s comprehensive land use plan that features an even larger industrial zone to be carved from the historic farmland area.
A plan commission public hearing on the proposed new master plan is set June 1. A city council meeting to vote on the plan is set for June 7.
As of two weeks ago, Becknell, which had declared to the city in January 2020 it had an option to purchase the 157 acres, had not recorded a deed evidencing it has exercised its option and taken ownership of the property, nor had it paid the city its $3.3 million contribution for infrastructure improvements for the project as specified by its “pre-development” agreement with the city.
This push for an even larger industrial park comes from a lame duck mayor, and possibly a lame duck plan commission and a lame duck city council majority that’s pro-rezone.
That’s because Hobart’s four-term mayor, Brian Snedecor, is leaving office at the end of the year and the mayor appoints members to the plan commission.
Also leaving will be at least three members of the city council, including the champion of the industrialization push last summer, Democrat Fourth District Councilman David Vinzant.
The political fates of three others who voted for the M-1 re-zone – two Democrats, Councilmen At-Large Dan Waldrop and Matt Claussen, and Republican Fifth District Councilman Chistopher Wells -- all hang on the outcome of Election Day, Nov. 7.
To spell it out, control of the council, and the power to pass zoning ordinances, which falls to the council, as well as support for the re-zone, could change meaningfully with November’s vote.
The No Re-Zone group did not endorse or oppose candidates in the recent, May 2, Democratic and Republican primaries and it will not endorse or oppose candidates in November, but it did create and post on its Facebook page before the election, “An Agreement of Consent and Six Challenges to Candidates from Hobart’s No Re-Zone Group.”
The No Re-Zone Challenge called for candidates to state “Yes” or “No” to six re-zone related issues and post those responses and any remarks in the comments section beneath the Challenge document “for the benefit of the public so that Hobart residents might better learn where candidates for Hobart city government stand on a key local issue.”
One of the Challenges asked candidates to call for a pause in the new master plan development process until after the election and a new mayor, plan commission and council could be seated. By the May 2 primary election, eight candidates had responded to the Challenge. I gave it six “Yes” responses.
One of two Democrat mayoral candidates, former Councilman Jerry Herzog, also responded with six “Yes” answers. He lost to Second District Councilman Josh Huddlestun, who had voted against the re-zone in 2022, but refused to respond to any of the No Re-Zone Group’s six challenges, citing the advice of legal counsel. Huddlestun has not identified his legal counselor, or the specifics of his or her advice.
Meanwhile, First District Councilman Mark Kopil, a Democrat, soundly defeated his opponent, plan commission member Michael Chhutani, by a 68% to 32% margin. Kopil answered two of the six challenges, demurring on the other four, like Huddlestun, citing the unspecified advice of an unnamed legal counsel.
On the plan commission, Chhutani voted for the re-zone in 2022 and did not respond to the No Re-Zone Challenge. In 2023, Chhutani’s vote total was half what it was in 2019 when he gave Kopil a close race in that year’s Democrat primary.
Both before and after the election, Kopil, who had voted “no” on the re-zone last summer, posted on Facebook, publicly thanking members of the No Re-Zone group for their support.
In the hotly contested Third District Democrat primary race, all three candidates took the challenge and answered “Yes” on all six issues. Winner Michael Rodriquez is so far running unopposed in November.
In the Fourth District, Democrat Lisa Winstead, with 65% of the primary vote, defeated David Scheeringa, 35%. She -- and voters -- received by mail the written endorsement of David Vinzant, the sitting Fourth District councilman. Neither Winstead nor Scheeringa answered the No Re-Zone Challenge.
But Winstead advances to the November general election carrying her political patron’s heavy political baggage. Vinzant twice voted for the M-1 re-zone, first as the city council’s representative to the plan commission and then again as a member of the council itself.
Winstead is running against Republican Jennifer Williams, an ardent No Re-Zone activist who answered “Yes” to all six challenges. She’ll likely make political hay of Vinzant’s support of Winstead.
The Fourth District, the location of some of Hobart’s newest and most expensive single-family homes, borders to the north the proposed industrial park. Its voters, especially hundreds of homeowners in four of the five major residential subdivisions along 61st Avenue, along with many residents of Kopil’s First District, are most immediately impacted by the M-1 re-zone.
In the Fifth District, incumbent Republican Councilman Christopher Wells, who cast the tie-breaking fourth vote for the re-zone in 2022, could face stiff opposition from Democrat William (Bill) Perryman, who is as yet undeclared on the re-zone challenge. Wells had 82 votes in the primary to Perryman’s 216.
In the Democratic Party primary for Council At-Large, both incumbents, Matt Claussen and Dan Waldrop, who voted for the re-zone in 2022, won over political newcomer LorriAnne Bassil, but not by overwhelming margins -- 37% and 35%, respectively, for them, versus 28% of the vote for Bassil, who accepted all six challenges.
Claussen received 40% fewer votes than he did in the 2019 primary, Waldrop
received 41% fewer. Did Bassil’s No Re-Zone voters chew into support for Claussen and Waldrop? Probably. Voter turnout in the At-Large race was down just 17% compared with the total vote in 2019.
We may learn more in November how much impact the No Re-Zone issue will have in the At-Large race. In the 2019 general election, fully 30% of the voters who cast ballots for Waldrop and Claussen voted straight Democrat.
I will face Claussen and Waldrop and Republican Monica Wolak-Castro in Nov. 7. She received 413 votes running unopposed in the Republican primary.
To win, I’m going to need to pull votes from the two Democrat incumbents, add support from Republicans, rally the environmentalists in the No Re-Zone movement and persuade the many Hobart independents who are experienced ticket splitters all to vote my way.
For now, Perryman, Wolak-Castro, Democrat Mark Kara, who ran unopposed in the Second District, and independent mayoral candidate Teddian Jackson, have yet to respond to the No Re-Zone Challenge.
And, of course, additional candidates can still enter any of these races, either by slating by the Republicans, or by petitioning registered voters to gain ballot access in November. Those petitions don’t have to be turned in for verification until late June so there’s plenty of time for more candidates to run.