PERU, Ind. — The Miami County Board of Zoning Appeals. It’s the place residents or companies go to get approval for special zoning variances or conditional land uses for their property.
Sound boring? Then you haven’t talked to Betty Burkhart.
The 91-year-old Miami County native has served on the board since it was formed more than 50 years ago in January 1967, making her the longest serving member of any board or commission in the county.
And in that time, her position has put Burkhart in the middle of some of the most intense and heated controversies in the county’s history.
Like the time a company applied for a variance to build a landfill north of Peru. Burkhart and the other members ended up approving the project – and infuriating about everyone in the area.
“Everybody was against the landfill,” she said. “People threatened the board. They said they’d get even with us. We even had to be escorted by security from the meeting . But it went back to our regulations. We had to vote according to them.”
Burkhart said that’s been her philosophy for the last 50 years: voting according to the rules and regulations set by the state and the county, regardless of whether it’s popular or makes people angry.
But in December, after attending more than 500 zoning board meetings, she cast her last vote and announced she was retiring from the position she’s held for five decades due to health issues.
“I wasn’t really sad and I wasn’t really happy about it,” Burkhart said. “I just knew I had to do it. I’d been thinking about it for a year, so I was resigned to the idea that this is what I’m going to do.”
Tammy Gamble, the Miami County zoning administrator and building commissioner who has worked with Burkhart for the last 25 years, said she was one of the most reliable board members of all time who had an impeccable attendance record. In 50 years, she missed just 10 meetings.
Now, Gamble said, Burkhart’s knowledge and experience with zoning issues will be sorely missed.
“There’s nobody on the board that has been here as long as I have except for Betty,” Gamble said. “It was always a comfort knowing she was there. She would always ask questions about the particulars of a situation and took time to make sure she understood what she was voting on.”
Burkhart said she’s been educating herself on zoning laws and policy since the day a Miami County commissioner called her out of the blue in 1966 to ask if she wanted to serve on the newly formed board.
“It was such a shock. I wasn’t even expecting it,” Burkhart said. “I asked for a week or two to think about it. Then I figured I didn’t have anything else to do, so I agreed to it.”
Burkhart spent the next few months pouring over code books before the first meeting to learn all the rules regulating zoning – and there were a lot of them.
“We had a lot of studying to do on those books,” she said. “We had a book for the state and a book for the county. It was really kind of tough that first year, but then you got into how it worked and it wasn’t so bad.”
Not only did Burkhart have to learn all the rules, she also spent the first few years defending the new board, which received pushback from residents who didn’t like the idea of the government telling them what they could do with their property.
“It created a big problem in the county at first,” Burkhart said. “People were used to doing what they wanted to do. They didn’t want the board. They didn’t want any part of it. They wanted to do what they wanted to do.”
Burkhart said she understood that mindset. But she also understood the need to have firm regulations to ensure the safety of everyone in the county.
“I can still see both sides of it,” she said. “People that own their own property, they have the right to do what they want. I understand that. But if there’s a four-way stop and someone wants to build on that corner, they can’t do that. Drivers can’t see around the corner.”
And enforcing rules that made it better for everyone is what made her job satisfying, Burkhart said. She said the biggest contribution she made during her time on the board was cleaning up nuisance properties that had turned into unsightly junkyards.
But the main reason Burkhart stayed on the board for half-a-century was the people. Not only did she enjoy working with all the other board members, she said, she liked meeting all the residents who came before the board.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really did,” Burkhart said. “I got to meet a lot of people I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I’m a people person. I like to visit with people.”
Her outgoing personality also explains why she worked as a beautician for 44 years – first at her own shop in Amboy, and then at a retirement home and hospital in Peru – before retiring when she was 77.
And now that she has retired from the board of zoning appeals, Burkhart said, it’s tough to believe she’s been at it for five decades. For her, heading to the courthouse for the monthly meetings was simply a way of life.
“I knew it was zoning board night, and I got dressed and I went,” Burkhart said. “If I’m going to do something, I’m committed to doing it . But it doesn’t feel like I’ve been on the board for 50 years, because I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Source: Kokomo Tribune, http://bit.ly/2Asds5X
Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by the Kokomo Tribune.