Center Grove area residents want more places to shop, eat and get their errands done, but right now those types of businesses generally are allowed only along state roads 135 and 37.
Residents said they need more options so they can shop closer to home and avoid the traffic backups on State Road 135. Most of the unincorporated area of White River Township is zoned so that only homes can be built.
About 25,000 people live in the Center Grove area, but most of the area is unincorporated, meaning residents do not get services or representation from a city or town.
Guidelines for development in the area are included in the county’s comprehensive plan, but the area is the largest community in the state that doesn’t have its own plan for the future, like a city or a town would, Johnson County Planning Director David Hittle said.
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The countywide plan doesn’t give officials enough detail to know what exactly should be developed based on what residents want and what the area needs, Hittle said.
So, the county is tasking a committee of residents to come up with those plans.
A 15-member committee, which could include residents, teachers, public safety officials and business owners, will be asked to examine the overall area, and 10 five-member groups will focus on specific areas, such as Fairview Road and Smith Valley Road near State Road 37 or along Morgantown Road near Center Grove High School.
The committee will come up with a new plan, which will lay out where residents say homes should be built, where businesses are needed and where they should or should not be built, and which areas previously zoned for residential development should be switched to commercial development.
That plan will then go to the county planning department and the county commissioners to approve it being included in the overall comprehensive plan. Planning officials then would use that information when developers want to build.
Once the work is done, the committee will disband, Hittle said. The creation of the committee and the work to reassess the Center Grove area has no timetable, he said.
‘We need a better tool’
Under Indiana law, county boards and government officials that are asked to approve new developments, such as a subdivision or a shopping center, have to follow the county’s comprehensive plan. That plan lays out the zoning of specific areas, saying whether the land can be used for residential development, commercial or industrial businesses or agricultural and conservation purposes.
The entire Center Grove area, from State Road 135 to State Road 37 between Whiteland Road and County Line Road, is zoned for residential development. So even if residents think a spot would be a prime location for shops or restaurants and local businesses, it can’t be built there. That’s why the county planning department wants to update the plan, Hittle said.
“It’s unusual for an area to get this big and not have its own plan,” Hittle said. “This is for the county planning department — we need a better tool. The whole idea is developing a plan that is driven by the community and not by the county.”
Inside the Center Grove area are multiple locations that have become commercial but haven’t been updated on the county’s plan. A home that is now used as an accountant’s office sits along Morgantown Road near Center Grove High School, for example. Other areas along Stones Crossing Road have seen nonresidential buildings go up, such as a dentist office.
In some areas previously zoned for homes, commercial development would be a better fit, Hittle said. Those are the areas the county is focusing on, which they call “critical areas,” he added.
The only commercially zoned locations are along State Road 135 and the southbound side of State Road 37, between County Line Road and Smith Valley Road.
Rezoning areas for more commercial development away from the congestion and traffic on State Road 135 would benefit Center Grove area residents, Johnson County Plan Commission member Kevin McGinnis said.
“We have to serve the desired growth,” McGinnis said. “Center Grove residents want easily obtained conveniences. We need more commercial strip centers and amenities. Right now, they have to fight traffic on State Road 135 for that.”
Some of the possibilities could include grocery or pharmacy stores, or restaurants and retail similar to what sits on State Road 135, McGinnis said.
Impact of I-69
Commercial growth is also a priority because those developments bring in more tax revenue than residential development, McGinnis said.
Another key focus area will be along State Road 37, which has long been discussed as a potential route for Interstate 69 between Indianapolis and Martinsville. State officials are deciding what route the interstate should take and have narrowed the list to five options, including State Road 37.
But even if I-69 does not take the path of State Road 37, that highway should still be viewed as a spot for development, McGinnis said.
But Hittle said there is no real direction for what type of commercial development should go there.
Based on the growth in the area and the potential of I-69, it isn’t a matter of if but when that development happens, volunteer Forrest Mellott said.
“We don’t think about what would happen if I-69 comes through here — exits, access — put the road plans in place so when the development happens we’re ready. It’s much more proactive,” he said.
Mellott has lived in the Center Grove area for 40 years and has a professional background in planning.
Before any change can be made in zoning, he said, the committee will need to look at infrastructure in the area.
For years, developers bought land, applied and paid for their permits and then built without any regard for future concerns, such as parking, accessibility and traffic, Mellott said.
Having a plan that doesn’t first look at the area, including reviewing traffic and the impact a store or commercial building will have on it, will just result in similar development where a big-box retailer or building goes on an empty piece of land that might not be the best location for it, Mellott said.
“Routes, roads, that’s the type of planning and infrastructure I’m talking about,” Mellott said.
‘Driven by the community’
The Johnson County Planning Department doesn’t have enough staff to focus on every need in the Center Grove area, let alone understand what is most needed in certain areas, Hittle said.
“The whole idea is that the plan is driven by the community and not by us,” he said.
“Stakeholders, active champions for the community, that’s who we want in leading this. We’ll have public meetings as well where voices can be heard. Hopefully the amount will be in the hundreds. If we have too many people calling that will be a good thing.”
McGinnis said the committee will have to keep in mind that the desires of the community will often differ from the committee.
Hittle plans to conduct public hearings so each voice and every idea is heard.
“Part of the committee’s responsibility will be to educate and engage the other side,” Mellott said.
“You’re going to have a wide variety of perspectives and desires. Some like the way the community is; others want change and growth. We’re serving more as a compass, rather than a plan. We’re providing direction.”