Knox Plan Commission Meeting Includes Heated Conversation Over Project Concerns, Results in Verbal Resignation

The Knox Plan Commission met last night to hold a public hearing and discussion over a subdivision of property for the purpose of developing a Dollar General Store in the area at the request of Mark Matthew.

The commissioners ultimately approved the subdivision but prior to and following the decision, the meeting continuously erupted into conversations over site planning and safety concerns, resulting in one commissioner submitting verbal resignation and leaving the meeting prior to adjournment.

Commission president Jeff Berg began by running over the purpose and protocol of the meeting and hearing, saying that Mr. Matthew was seeking permission to divide a lot at the corner of U.S 35 and County Road 200 S. Planning Administrator Kenny Pfost added that a notification of the hearing was publicized and all neighbors within a 500 foot radius of the project were sent letters about the plans.

During the public hearing Attorney Martin Bedrock clarified that use of the word ‘subdivision’ in this case refers to the division of a lot not to developing a neighborhood. While no one opposed the subdivision itself, but many concerns were brought up about the driveways of the proposed store. Starke County Highway Superintendent Rik Ritzler was the first to address the issue.

“I’m neutral on this, I’m all for businesses coming in but I am concerned about the driveway distances from 35.” Ritzler explained,  “I would like to work with engineer here and do that to maybe come up with a better solution”

Resident and neighboring property owner, Steve Berndt and Commissioner John Wilson echoed Ritzler’s concerns about the driveways, stating that 200 S is already very busy and bringing up the potential safety hazard of adding more traffic. They proposed putting the access points on U.S. 35 instead.

The civil engineer for the project, Mike Thompson, replied to the concerns saying that while they’d be more than willing to work with the highway department, they already received approval on their plans and it would be difficult to alter them at this point. Ritzler said that the county has jurisdiction over the roadways in question and that their approval would need to be obtained prior to the finalization of any plans.

Attorney Bedrock spoke about plan approval, stating that any affirmative confirmation the engineer or developer received about the plans through him, or the acting plan administrator, pertained to the setback and zoning requirements, which were in accordance. The attorney said he was unaware of the fact that the county would need to make an input about the right-of-ways.

Some of the confusion was exemplified by the fact that there was a different planning administrator in place when the project was first proposed. Initially, Kevin Kotras was the administrator who was in contact with representatives of the project. Kenny Pfost is now acting administrator and came into this in the middle of negotiations.

Thompson mentioned that they’ve had extended correspondence with city officials over the last several months, dating back to November of last year, and said this was the time they were hearing of an issue with having the access points and exits on county road 200 S.

However, Mayor Dennis Estok disputed that claim, saying he recalled speaking with the developer in the past and mentioning that the particular intersection was one of the most dangerous in the county.

The civil engineer said that they acknowledge that safety is a vital concern and the decision to utilize 200 S rather than U.S. 35 came from studies over which roadway had a lower traffic volume. He also mentioned that site planning, while it is important, was not the purpose of the public hearing and tried to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand which was the subdivision of the property.

After some more discussion, President Berg concluded the hearing and opened the topic up for commissioner consideration. Commissioner John Wilson, who has been a resident of 200 S for more than 30 years, reiterated his concerns about the placement of access points. Ron Parker mentioned that he felt that commission members were kept in the dark about some of the project details since a lot of the information was presented for the first time during the meeting.

When it came time to vote on the subdivision, Commissioners Greg Matt and John Wilson opposed, Ron Parker abstained and the remainder of commissioners voted in favor.

Superintendent Ritzler exhanged information with project representatives and then they left the meeting. President Berg attempted to move on to other agenda items but Commissioner Matt asked when he was made aware of this Dollar General Project. Berg said he knew about it back in the summertime but didn’t receive many details. He also said that when he spoke to Kostras, the planning administrator at the time, he would say no additional information was available.

Matt said that transparency is important and said in the future, more needs to be done to ensure members are kept abreast of these kinds of issues. Commissioner Wilson mentioned that he did bring this up to members in the past and said he felt it was not sufficiently addressed. Wilson said he feared that by having the commission’s approval on the lot’s division, it would result in them carrying on with the site plan as is, without amending it to deal with the safety concerns.

Commissioners Wilson and Parker both expressed that they felt Berg rushed the vote. The commission president said he made it very clear at the start of the meeting what choices were available, saying they had a chance to table the motion if they were unsure on how to act on it.

Commission President Berg stated that he is confident that Superintendent Ritzler will be able to work with the engineer in order to reach a compromise that addresses the safety concerns that were addressed during the meeting. He then attempted to continue with additional agenda items. Shortly after Berg’s comment, Wilson stood up, submitted a verbal notice of his resignation and left City Hall.

Toward to conclusion of last night’s meeting, Vice President Jim Jenkins stated that the majority of conversation that took place had nothing to do with the subdivision and indicated that the plan commission procedures were not followed. Jenkins voiced disapproval with the way that meeting was conducted in front of the project representatives.

Additionally, the plan commission members addressed the fact that they’ll need to approach the county commissioners about appointing someone else to the plan commission since Wilson resigned.

After the meeting, Berg and Secretary Steve Dodge discussed how tonight’s meeting was meant to be about the lot splitting.They mentioned that site planning concerns could be addressed in greater detail when the developer and engineer return to request building permits in the future.