(This piece was originally published on October 13, 2017 in the Indy Star.)

City planners have released a draft of their land use plan that they envision will make Indianapolis healthier, more inclusive, more resilient and more competitive.

But already the proposed plan is drawing skepticism from some who believe it might not go far enough to protect certain communities — and whether the public will have enough time to study the plan and provide meaningful input.

The plan — which is a policy, but not law — was drafted by the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development. The plan provides guidance when making decisions about zoning around the city and helps designate certain areas as residential, green space or for industry. It also helps in considering where to put new roadways, business development or schools, among other things.

The community’s and residents’ opportunity to weigh in on that plan, however, is coming to a close. The public comment period closes on Tuesday, not even two weeks after it opened.

The public has been extensively involved in creating the draft of the Pattern Book — which is a part of the plan that outlines land use types — through listening sessions and the newly-created People’s Planning Academy, according to department administrator Brad Beaubien. The community also will have future opportunities to give input, he said, as the city begins implementing the plan during the mapping phase, set to start early next year.

“The mapping stage is really where the rubber hits the road,” Beaubien said. “We are trying to find ways to not only get at the people who have always been involved, but also trying to hear from people that we don’t always hear input from.”

However, some residents and advocates say the short comment period doesn’t give those neighborhoods and people the opportunity to do so.

“We need more time because it affects so many people who don’t always get this information right away,” said Elizabeth Gore, a longtime resident of the Martindale-Brightwood community and a chairperson of the area’s environmental justice collaborative.

“We need to pay much more attention to the environment and what the community feels about it,” she told IndyStar, “because the changes and decisions made now will affect the county for years and years to come.”

Decisions about where to have major roadways through the city or where to allow for industrial and manufacturing development, especially in relation to residential areas or parks and schools.

While many community and environmental advocates applaud the initiatives laid out in the plan, they do question whether it goes far enough in its commitment to protect and help improve vulnerable or environmentally burdened communities such as Martindale-Brightwood.

Yi Wang said he was struck by the plan’s emphasis on wellbeing and inclusivity for Marion County residents but felt it was inconsistent without also including mentions of equity among the communities — such as how close they are to landfills, highways or public parks. The Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis assistant professor has worked to develop a mapping tool that measures the vulnerability of different areas and populations in the city to pollution.

“This is good timing for the city to really make this gesture,” said the environmental health expert. “I know it is hard to have this language in there, but to not even mention it is disappointing.”

There is precedent for including such language in city’s land use plans and documents, according to Indra Frank, the environmental health director with the Hoosier Environmental Council.

The advocacy group supports many of the steps in the pattern book, she said, including protections for wetlands, rivers and urban trees as well as efforts to promote public transportation and areas to walk and bike.

“Still, because it carries the city’s vision of our future,” Frank said, “what we are going to suggest is that the land use plan should include a statement to strive for environmental justice in the future.”

Environmental justice refers to the fair and equal distribution of both environmental benefits and risks throughout the county and different populations.

Beaubien said the city is open to those comments and wants to ensure this planning process is the city’s most inclusive to date.

“In the rationale section of the pattern book,” he said, “if we’re not strong enough in that language, that’s why we have the public comment to make sure we do reflect the values of Indianapolis.”

To see the land use plan and submit comment, you can find that information online.

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