Starke Judge Rules on Commercial Structure Debate

Starke County Courthouse
Starke County Courthouse

The ongoing debate between Betty and George Dotlich and Julia Ford seems to have come to a conclusion, as Patrick Blankenship, special judge with the Starke Circuit Court, ruled that the Starke County Board of Zoning Appeals failed to follow proper procedure, allowed ex parte communication, and made a decision unsupported by substantial evidence.

The case came to light when Julia Ford of Starke County purchased a used manufactured commercial office structure that had been certified in Illinois and applied for a permit to convert it to a single-family residence, which the BZA approved on Jan. 11, 2012. Petitioners George and Betty Dotlich, James and Linda Siroky, and Anthony and Jane Standifer own real estate adjacent to Ford’s residence.

The Dotliches filed their request for administrative appeal of the building permit on Jan. 20, 2012 before the BZA and presented evidence in support of their appeal at the meeting. However, the ruling indicates that no public comment was heard during the meeting, in violation of Indiana Code. After tabled the matter and reconvened on March 15, 2012, to continue the public hearing, but once again neglected to allow public comment for the matter.

In addition, the ruling found that Ford had communicated with individual members and the attorney of the BZA, again violating Indiana Code, and the BZA failed to note that at the meeting – yet another violation.

The ruling concluded that the BZA failed to employ proper procedure by not allowing public comment at the hearings, “depriving those present… of providing relevant evidence.” On top of that, the ruling found that the BZA also failed to follow procedure in dealing with communication prior to the hearing, denying the Dotliches the opportunity to address the statements made by Ford.

Finally, the decision was found to be unsupported by substantial evidence. The zoning administrator, according to the ruling, failed to provide any evidence as to why he granted the permit, and very little discussion was heard before the BZA voted 5-0 to deny the appeal.

The court ordered that the BZA pay $15,164 in court and attorney costs for the case and has required the BZA to issue new findings consistent with the court’s findings, giving them 45 days to enter new Findings of Fact and Decision.