Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Protecting a Neighborhood

Here we go again.

Yet another real estate investor is trying to rezone yet another home on Conner Street. This time it’s Larry J. Ley. He wants to turn the home at 1135 Conner St. into a commercial property. It’s been a residence since it was built nearly 100 years ago.

There’s a troubling uniformity to people who try to rezone Old Town Noblesville homes to businesses. They know little about the place and haven’t a clue what it’s like to live here.

As best I can tell, Mr. Ley fits the mold. He doesn’t live in Old Town nor does he appear to live in a neighborhood where anyone will ever try to put a commercial use up against his own home. In other words, he won’t personally have to live with the circumstances he seeks to impose on others.

Appearing to underline his misunderstanding, Mr. Ley met with the Noblesville Preservation Alliance board recently and promised he would take good care of the house. He perhaps thought if he promised to be a good steward of the home the group would support him. But this isn’t about the preservation of old houses. It’s about families and neighborhoods.

Why does the neighborhood want the home to stay residential? For the same reason such business/residential mixes are banned by deed restriction in every modern subdivision in Noblesville, and from the very neighborhoods where Mr. Ley has homes in Carmel and on Morse Reservoir in Noblesville.

Old Town residents are no different than people living in those protected neighborhoods. Neighbors know each other. Their children play together. Evenings and weekends they might end up talking on someone’s front porch or share a beer around a patio campfire. When on vacation, neighbors feed each other’s pets and watch over their homes. These are the building blocks of community.

Where businesses exist amid neighborhoods, it hard for residents to know the businessperson who goes home each evening to a different neighborhood. No child at the business will play with yours. You don’t share dinners with them and don’t help each other in times of need. Strangers come and go from the business all day. It sits empty at night. The yard is often a paved parking lot with a dumpster that’s emptied in the middle of the night. The business might even buy the house next door and demolish it for more parking. Subtract a second neighbor. And with each, subtract a little sense of community within the neighborhood.

Not much chance this will ever happen to Mr. Ley at his leafy Carmel address or his waterfront home. But he’s still looking to change the rules and the lay of the land for families surrounding the home he wants to rezone on Conner.

There hasn’t been a commercial rezone on the residential stretch of Conner in 25 years, and that last one was done to save a significant piece of architecture from demolition. In those 25 years, another home that was business actually went back to residential. That means there’s been no net increase in business in the residential stretch of Conner in over 30 years.

And that’s not a fluke. It’s the result of 3 decades of vigilance.

Families here have had to marshal their efforts time and again to protect their neighborhood. During the last attempted rezone, 7 years ago, I helped canvass the neighborhood, finding that nearly all residents from Maple to Logan opposed the rezone. I also found that even the businesses already here don’t want more businesses. They already arrive at work many days to find strangers parked in their parking lots. House another business in a tight residential area and see parking woes multiply. That’s why even the Presbyterian Church opposed the last attempt at a Conner Street rezone.

And Mr. Ley is trying to create his new business location at the end of a dead-end alley. Heaven help that block of families on both Conner and Maple who will now have Mr. Ley’s customers struggling up and down this dead-end alley, turning around in driveways and blocking garage doors – something they’ve already experienced in the past. Such things happen in other areas of Old Town where businesses have been allowed to locate among family homes.

What happens if Mr. Ley succeeds in getting a rezone? It would set a precedent. If you say yes to this property, what about the house next door? How could you say no? And then the next one . . .

It’s easy to imagine most of Conner and 10th – our main thoroughfares gradually overtaken by businesses, gouging a commercial X through residential Old Town, cleaving it into 4 separate pods and bringing businesses up against the private back yards of one side of Logan, Maple, 9th & 11th Streets. Bringing business up against those private back yards is something that’s seldom discussed during these rezones attempts. What you do on one busy street will echo to a back yard behind it.

Do that and we’d start looking like Westfield and Cicero, towns that have done an embarrassingly bad job of protecting the calling cards of their small town atmosphere­ – their entry thoroughfares.

And Mr. Ley told the preservation group the house he wants to rezone was in bad condition, suggesting he saved it. I showed the house to a client of mine right before Mr. Ley bought it. I’ve restored 4 homes myself and have a deep background in preservation. I found the house in excellent condition. If it was in such bad condition, why did he pay the highest price paid for a residence in Old Town since 2006?

And though Noblesville’s Planning Department officials told Mr. Ley that they wouldn’t support his rezone request, word on the street is he continues to throw money at the plan. Neighbors tell me he’s hired construction crews who are busy replacing original detail on the home. And he’s hired a local attorney and a surveyor to help him make his rezone case to the city.

But boards of zoning appeals and plan commissions were not created to fix overconfidence or feelings of entitlement or even ignorance. They were created to fix legitimate land-use need and hardship. If hardship exists for Mr. Ley, it is self-manufactured. 

Most of the Old Town families who are rebuilding these neighborhoods don’t have pockets deep enough to hire attorneys every few years to fight to protect their neighborhood. Hardly seems fair, but that’s the way of the world. They’ll have to count on their elected officials to protect the environment where they’re raising their children and the quality of life they’ve worked so hard to build.