July 18, 2008

Vote Blocks Canyon Cliffs Subdivision: Plan Commission Rejects Sewer, 4 of 5 Plats

By Bob Caylor, The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Jul. 18--The Allen County Plan Commission on Thursday blocked a 139-acre subdivision planned at Coldwater and Chapman roads in northern Allen County. But questions raised and arguments posed in more than a dozen hours of public hearings and meetings make it unlikely the fight on Canyon Cliffs is over.

The plan commission also refused a request endorsed by the Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District to lift restrictive covenants in the area so that Canyon Cliffs could run a sewer line to a connection for Fort Wayne sewer service, providing an opportunity for about 60 houses in another neighborhood to piggyback on its capacity. Commission members Al Frisinger, Ken Neumeister and Harold Kleine voted to lift the restriction; the other four members voted to keep it in place.

Oakmont Development III LLC asked for approval of five smaller plats that together constitute the development. The commission voted 4-3 in favor of four of the plats and 5-2 in favor of one of the plats. Because five votes are necessary for a measure to pass, only one of the plats was approved. Commission members Susan Hoot, Gonzalee Martin and Kleine voted against approving four of the plats. In the case of one of the five plats, Kleine joined Neumeister, Paul Moss, Frisinger and Bill Brown in voting for it.

After the meeting, attorney Thomas Niezer, who represents Oakmont, said he doesn't know how his client will proceed or whether the company will attempt some sort of residential development on the lone- approved plat, at Richey Lane and Chapman.

The hearing was held without commission president Charles Bodenhafer, who owns the land Oakmont would develop and has recused himself from discussions and votes involving the proposal.

Bodenhafer and Neumeister are both targets of ethics complaints filed with the county by opponents of Canyon Cliffs alleging conflicts of interest. The group says Neumeister, a friend of Bodenhafer, has a conflict because as owner of Liberty Construction Co. he could profit from any future building.

Moss referred to Bodenhafer's ownership of the land as "the elephant in the room" during Thursday's meeting.

"The property owner is the president of the plan commission," he said. "There are an awful lot of incestuous relationships here that are difficult to weave through."

Although Canyon Cliffs would cover a sizable area, it would be a low-density addition, with only 28 lots. Forty-five of the 139 acres, mostly wetlands, would not be developed at all, according to the company. During Thursday's meeting, Mike Thomas of Oakmont said the company would spend $210,000 to $240,000 on a lift station and sewer line; property owners in the Holmestead Acres subdivision south of Canyon Cliffs site would be invited to connect to that line for sewer service.

In the meeting and during a public hearing last week, Hoot and Martin asked a number of questions that made their votes against the development unsurprising.

Hoot said that when she voted in favor of the ordinance earlier this year allowing the commission to review and combine as many as six residential lots as a single development subject to fewer regulations than traditional subdivisions, she had no idea it might be used to bundle multiple plats as a way of developing large subdivisions.

By combining five "minor plats," critics say Canyon Cliff violates the ordinance's spirit, if not its specific language. "I am in disagreement with all of this," Hoot said. "I'm sorry I am a part of this."

She said that even though "Plan-It Allen," a comprehensive planning strategy for Fort Wayne and Allen County is not law, she was strongly influenced by it in opposing the development. Plan-It Allen emphasizes the importance of preserving natural areas in the county.

Hundreds of acres of nature preserves are located around and near the proposed site of Canyon Cliffs. ACRES Land Trust, which owns many of those preserves, has negotiated with Oakmont to buy the land. During Thursday's meeting, Brown, who is also a county commissioner, suggested that perhaps the county contribute $500,000 and help ACRES purchase the property and preserve it.

Martin asked commission attorney Thomas Hardin whether the commission had grounds to reject Canyon Cliffs' minor plats. Hardin told him he hadn't heard anything to convince him there was reason to do so.


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