Land use planning a contentious issueWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Land use is a confusing and volatile issue in Indiana and other states in the '90s. If you don't believe it, ask Purdue University's Janet Ayres.
In her role as Purdue Cooperative Extension Service assistant director for leadership and community development, Ayres was called last year to lead a meeting designed to open a dialogue among the citizens of a southern Indiana community.
In stepped Ayres and the Purdue Land Use Team, an 11-member committee of Extension faculty established to help communities plan their own futures. Other universities in various stages of launching similar teams include Ohio State, the University of Illinois and University of Nevada at Reno.
"Our goal is to develop awareness," Ayres says. "We try to bring as much knowledge to the issue as we can, based on the available facts. We want to help people know what their options are, what tools and techniques exist in their communities."
Ayres opened the meeting by asking a simple question. "Let's think about this county's future," Ayres offered. "What would you like to see and what would you not like to see?
"One man stood up and said 'I don't like you educated people standing up there and telling us what we can do and what we can't do. What we usually do with people like you is that I know how to tie a noose and slip it around your head. Twenty years ago (at a similar planning meeting), I brought the rope. And I brought it with me tonight. If you lead this group to accept zoning, you won't leave this county alive!'"
Ayres received police protection that night.
The disagreements are heated and heartfelt, and no one is immune. It is an issue, says Bill Hoover, that touches us all.
"Land use is going to affect the quality of everyone's life in the future," says Hoover, a Purdue forestry professor and principal author of "Indiana Land Use on the Edge," a report of the Indiana Agriculture and Natural Resource Land Use Working Group commissioned in 1996 by then Lt. Gov. Frank O'Bannon.
Ayres says that Indiana and other Midwestern states share many of the same land use issues, and that her counterparts in those states also report incidents of highly charged community response.
One exception is neighboring Ohio. According to Larry Libby, the C. William Swank Professor of Rural and Urban Policy at Ohio State University, there seems to be plenty of cooperation between farmers, small communities and economic development planners. Libby, who also has dealt with land use issues in Florida and Michigan, says the political climate in Ohio regarding land use is positive.
"A recent land use survey conducted here revealed a remarkable degree of support for land use planning, including among farmers," he says. "Farmers and community members in Ohio view planning as a protective advantage. We just don't see the heated debates that Janet Ayres and her team have experienced, at least not yet."
Indiana and Ohio are alike in that neither has a statewide land use policy. What is allowed in one county may not fly in the adjoining county. Policy varies from one community to the next, even within the same county. This is by design, Ayres says, allowing people to have a say in what their community should look like.
And what does Indiana look like? U.S. Census of Agriculture figures indicate Indiana lost 675,000 acres of farmland to other uses between 1982 and 1992. That's more than twice the size of Marion County. Only 19 of Indiana's 92 counties have not lost sizable chunks of farmland during that time.
But it's about more than just farmland, Ayres says. Forest lands are cleared and converted to residential properties and commercial real estate. Livestock operations, bean fields and pasture lands disappear. In their place, tract homes, minimalls, even landfills pop up.
Urbanites, in the migration to become ruralites, take issue with their new neighbors, the farmers, who probably weren't spreading manure the first time the real estate agent showed the city folks the property. Bad feelings grow while available land shrinks.
Johnson County Extension educator Rick Chase wrestles daily with the problems of land use, as he sees the suburbs of Indianapolis creep farther and farther into northern tier of his county.
"When I came to Franklin in 1984, there was a Ponderosa Restaurant and that was about it," Chase remembers. "Now we've got three McDonald's in Franklin. I ask myself how is it possible that we need three McDonald's in Franklin? At times, it seems growth is almost out of control.
"If I stood up in a meeting, any meeting, and asked, 'How many of you want the government to tell you what you can and can't do with your land?' I'll guarantee you, nobody would raise their hand.
"But the question is, do you want landfills across the road from you? Do you want to live next to a mobile home park? Do you want a dump or a factory across the street? Do you want a farmer farming next to you? These are the issues the planning and zoning boards deal with in protecting the community so that people don't interfere with each other or hurt each other."
As an Extension educator, part of Chase's job is to teach county residents about zoning laws, and to encourage them to take a role in shaping the future of their county.
But Chase has an even more influential voice in the future of Johnson County. By Indiana law, a county Extension educator serves on each county's planning commission. In Johnson County, it's Chase.
"It is difficult (to do both), because as an educator, you try to remain neutral. You try to present both sides of an issue and then let people make their decisions. That is the ideal situation," Chase says.
"But as a planning commission member, you take a side, there is no question. When you vote, you take a side. I have always tried to vote in the best interest of the community. I try to look at the whole community and say 'What do I think would be best in this situation?'"
There are no easy answers, hence the creation of the Hoosier Farmland Preservation Task Force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan. The task force will present recommendations for farmland preservation and other land use issues to Gov. O'Bannon and members of the General Assembly for the 1999 session. In the meantime, Kernan says the task force will offer information and guidance to any community wrestling with these problems.
"We're not in a crisis situation yet," Kernan says. "But with a growing population and the anticipated future demand for food, we need to work to make sure we're not in a crisis later."
Sources: Janet Ayres, (765) 494-4215; e-mail: