Development is proliferating in Indiana. Take for example the LEAP Innovation District in Lebanon, which will effectively double the size of the city in one swift development proposal. Because it will require substantial amounts of land and water, LEAP has garnered statewide attention and opposition from many Hoosiers. Warehouse developments are contributing to a seemingly endless sprawl on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Apartments, townhomes, and residential subdivisions with sky-high prices are being crammed just about anywhere.

While it is important to maintain a balance between growth and preservation, there is no denying that the amount of land being developed has Hoosiers concerned. Several independent civic movements in Indiana are emerging as a result – often consisting of small groups of concerned neighbors – scrambling together to mount successful campaigns to protect the peace and tranquility of where they live. 

The problem of unsustainable growth is in part caused by local governments. Planning branches of local governments are tasked with the responsibility of managing growth through a process called planning. Part of that planning process includes the development of an actual plan that is intended to serve as a guide on how the community should grow and what sort of values should be maintained. 

Comprehensive plans are one of the primary documents used in the planning process. In Indiana, comprehensive plans are permitted under state laws, which encourage cities, towns, and counties to adopt plans. Plans adopted in Indiana must contain a statement of objectives for the future development of the area, a statement of policy for the land use development of the area, and a statement of policy for the development of public spaces, structures, and utilities (Turner and Bergman).

Prior to new construction, developers often need permission from their local planning department. This means that they must receive certain authorizations that are supposed to align with the policy goals laid out in comprehensive plans. While not legally binding, the plans provide a foundation for advancing environmental protection by establishing goals that aim to protect natural resources. The problem? Most developments hardly ever align with the environmental goals laid out in these plans. 

Take for example an industrial development on the southside of Indianapolis, which will occur on 200 acres of agricultural land that contains about 45 acres of wetlands and forests. These natural spaces are home to state threatened species and constitute some of the last remaining open space in this region. The specific parcels of land to be developed are guided by a comprehensive plan known as the I-65/County Line Road Strategic Plan.

The industrial development was opposed by the Hoosier Environmental Council and residents. One reason for the opposition has to do with the fact that the comprehensive plan for the area is protective of natural resources – and this development will jeopardize them. 

Environmentally protective statements in the plan include:

  • sensitively incorporate the natural assets of the area into development,
  • environmental characteristics of the land should have a modifying effect on the primary land use, 
  • and careful attention should be given to natural woodlands and wetlands so that the natural aspects of the site may be conserved.  

From these statements, one could assume that the natural spaces would likely be protected in the case of a new development. But for the proposed industrial park at I-65 and County Line Road, this is not the case. The developer, Gershman Partners, will be building warehouses within a large wetland ecosystem suitable for conservation. The area is known to have drainage issues, has evidence of historical wetland extent, contains wildlife habitat for state threatened species such as sandhill cranes, and essentially functions as an unprotected park and scenic backdrop for residents. 

To remediate the environmental concerns, the developer is proposing to protect two natural areas – neither of which are adjacent to each other – creating an impassable habitat for wildlife. Additionally, some of the higher quality wetlands and forested areas will not be preserved.

At the city council hearing, HEC, and resident Robin Heldman, testified against the development. Not a single member of the council asked a follow up question, and there was no discussion among the council regarding any environmental concerns. The proposal was approved unanimously, and the staff planner assigned to the case stated that the development was “generally consistent” with the plan for the area.

Not only was the decision a disappointment, but it was generally inconsistent with the stated environmental goals laid out in the plan. The approval sent a clear message that environmental protection was not a clear priority for the council. A decade of land use changes, observed via satellite imagery, show that the broader planning area has already removed several wooded areas and a significant wetland, which was identified in the area’s comprehensive plan as a potential conservation target. 

So, the story goes – the industrial development does not align with the stated environmental goals in the plan – but also, the land use change in the area show that the city has longer history of neglecting environmental goals. What’s more is that during the process of developing the plan in the early 2000s, which surveyed residents about the needs for the area, park space was on the top of that list. Today, the planning area is only home to one park – a golf course. 

From this example, it is easy to see how local governments can steer development in the wrong direction when they choose to uphold certain values in their comprehensive plans and disregard others. With the growing concern about the sustainability of our current development patterns in the Hoosier state, though, the importance of upholding environmental goals laid out in these plans is becoming more apparent. 

We are currently faced with several environmental problems including flooding, heat waves, drought, extreme weather, water scarcity, pollution, and food insecurity. Without intact, healthy ecosystems like forests, wetlands, rivers, and prairies, we increase our risk of being affected by these problems. This is why municipalities in Indiana must encourage and uphold their environmental goals – so that they can grow sustainability and ensure that there are healthy, intact ecosystems for future generations. 

As for the many past and ongoing environmental movements in Indiana, they all share similar visions: they want to promote sustainable development, preserve community character, and protect natural resources. Groups like Stop the Water StealDon’t Leave It To Beaver, and Morristown Citizens for Responsible Growth are paving the way for local environmental change in the state. 

If you are an individual or part of an organization who is fighting unsustainable development or working to protect your local natural resources, leveraging local policy to support your environmental goals is a tool you should have in your toolkit. While it is undoubtedly true that state (and federal) policy is in dire need of updating and revision, several municipalities already have stated goals of wanting to protect the environment and natural resources, as in the case of the industrial development on Indianapolis’ southside. Not only can you use these goals to support your position, but it is also imperative that local governments hear from citizens, or else it is easy for them to turn a blind eye to environmental goals.