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West Jefferson Fight

By Jim Sack, 5/1/2018

The fight over the West Jefferson rezoning offers a few questions.

The first question is why a good citizen would ever bother to volunteer to serve on the Plan Commission, or any other citizen board, after city council overturned a unanimous, 7 to 0, recommendation against rezoning the Hunter West Jefferson property from residential to commercial? Supported by a learned lawyer and staff, the Plan Commission comprises seven veteran volunteers who debate each matter in great detail before making a recommendation to council. Additionally, council appoints an ex-offico member, in this case Tom Freistroffer, to represent their views. Almost always council affirms the Plan Commission votes. So, why not this time?

The second question is of property rights. In the vote to rezone the Hunter/Long residential property to commercial five Republican members of city council spoke in favor of the property rights of the owner of the property, namely the Hunter/Long Family, locally famous for the once darling of local TV news, Melissa, and her husband, the powerful leader of the Indiana Senate, David Long. Consequently, council brushed aside the “property rights” of a hundred or so other property owners neighboring the Hunter tract in favor of the rights of one.

The two principle arguments of the yea votes were that the rights of the seller are paramount, and that the march of progress favored the commercial rezoning and redevelopment.

Play Monopoly for an idea of how the growth game works. Four green houses can be traded for a red hotel with higher rents. In real life, neighborhoods are bulldozed for “higher uses” such as strip malls or apartment buildings. Those buildings decay over time and, in a strong economy, those properties are replaced by much larger structures, such as the Ash Building. The center of Fort Wayne, as Henry Rudisill once reported in 1831, was then but a collection of derelict hovels.

Former councilman Fred Hunter, the deceased owner of the West Jefferson property in question, was infamously known as the realtor who in the 70s gained control of gracious old homes on Wayne Street, allowed their deterioration and then passing them on to St. Joseph Hospital to be bulldozed in favor of the parking lot at Broadway and Wayne. He knew how to play the game. The West Central neighborhood was deeply angered by his actions and worked toward historic designation to protect the remaining homes, and has, in the process, made West Central one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. Mr. Hunter’s time on city council was ended, in part, by angry voters for his role in the demolition of those graceful buildings.

Ironically, question three, is where the Hunter/Long family may be hoist on Fred’s own petard. And it is the most important matter in this discussion. Fred Hunter made a solemn promise to abide by a set of covenants when he bought the property in question.

Many Fort Wayne neighborhoods have covenants. Some, such as West Central, have instituted a successor form of covenants, namely that history designation that Fred Hunter spurred along. Covenants are meant to stabilize a neighborhood and protect property values from, say, a strip joint moving in next door. The covenants Fred Hunter signed are the same sort of restrictions that newer neighborhoods, uniform in their putty colored homes, tidy landscaping and fenceless front lawns have in place to protect their property values.

Consequently, council’s vote has also rankled with a few zoning officials who are angry that it threatens long-standing local zoning norms. Will this place all restrictive covenants in jeopardy?

And, speaking of splitting hairs. A couple months back council was presented with a zoning waiver by Stewies, a strip joint on Coldwater Road. Council’s morality police were out in force the night of the vote pontificating to the camera about the types of businesses they wanted to see in that neighborhood. If you ask councilmen to explain the difference between the Hunter/Long Family rights and those of Stewies you will get a puffed-chest answer that has little relationship to law and more with their personal morality.

A further question concerns Senator David Long’s motives for his extremely rare appearance at council. A bit of pressure by the president of the Indiana Senate can be intimidating to fellow Republicans who need his support in the years to come. Senator Long can offer either a carrot or a stick. Two members of council, it should be noted, are plotting runs for mayor and Mr. Long can tip the primary race with his carrots or sticks. Nothing focuses a candidate’s mind like having one’s political future dependent on a single vote.

There is also the question of the conduct of the representative of that district, Jason Arp. Again, he favored the “property rights” of the seller over many of his constituents. He also suggested the owner had the right to do whatever might fall within that C-2 designation which allows, among other things, a religious complex, private club, motel, brew pub, TV station, fireworks stand, package liquor store and bingo hall. How about snake handlers as neighbors, or a Bob Morris fireworks stand? Additionally, Mr. Arp’s meetings with neighborhood associations were described as combative and he was described as condescending.

In short, Mr. Arp is also a loser in fight, and while the effected homeowners property values will fall, Mr. Arp has most certainly seen his re-election chances tumble, a la Fred Hunter.

The only winner is Senator Long. Lots of carrots. We’ll see who he favors. Mr. Arp, perhaps? It now depends on whether the neighbors sue and whether the court affirms Fred Hunter’s solemn word.

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