It took members of the Allen County Plan Commission just a few minutes Thursday to undermine recommendations developed over six months by an eight-member task force hand-picked by the County Commissioners. But it probably should have come as no surprise: Industrial development north of the giant General Motors truck plant had divided the two county boards twice before and probably will continue to do so, to the detriment of the economy and neighbors alike, unless GM itself helps settle things once and for all.
"I'd like to hear from GM," said task force member Ric Zehr after the Plan Commission delayed a vote on a proposed southwest Allen County development plan for 60 days because of concerns over its call to discourage industry to the north — which just happens to include the Winters Road site on which Crown Enterprises in 2001 and again in 2015 won the appointed Plan Commission's support for a proposed distribution center only to see that decision reversed by the elected three-member Board of Commissioners in the face of fierce public opposition.
GM's steadfast neutrality during the "truck hub" debate last year was odd, given its powerful if largely behind-the-scenes influence over development since opening a plant at Lafayette Center Road and Interstate 69 in the mid-1980s. The plant's arrival was in fact the catalyst for the 1985 plan Thursday's proposal is intended to replace. GM didn't want bars near the plant, for example, so commercial development near the interchange would be discouraged. Because the 1985 document steered industrial growth to the plant's west and south, opponents urged county officials to "follow the plan." But because it also allowed exceptions to the north for GM-related projects, Crown could make the same argument — and did.
In the end, both sides sued the county: opponents after the Plan Commission approved the project and Crown after the Commissioners rejected it. Resolving that bureaucratic Catch-22 was one of the task force's primary goals, and the members accomplished that by encouraging only agricultural and residential growth north of the plant. One of those members was then-GM Plant Manager Mike Glinski, but he reportedly had little to say, reinforcing the company's publicly stated neutrality over the Crown proposal.
Zehr, a developer, declined to comment on the Plan Commission's apparent unease with the document he helped create. But he did say he would not put homes on the same site Crown targeted for a truck hub despite the new plan's enthusiasm for residential growth there. Housing that close to GM would be a tough sell, he said.
Plan Commission Member Ken Neumeister Thursday said a report released a week earlier by the not-for-profit Urban Land Institute made some "compelling" arguments against the task force's recommendations. The ULI concluded that the "highest and best" use of land north of GM would be zoned for business, technology and industrial park use with a primary focus on GM. Just like Crown's proposed distribution center.
But the ULI's report, it should be noted, was commissioned by the Fort Wayne law firm Barrett McNagny, which just happens to represent Crown. At a public hearing earlier this month attorney Tom Niezer echoed many of ULI's points, suggesting the Plan Commission should ensure the long-term viability of the GM plant by encouraging nearby land uses that are compatible with the plant and discouraging those that are not. Winters Road is also close to a rail line, he said, which could make Crowns' site especially useful to GM.
The three Commissioners have the final word on zoning issues and, presumably, this proposal as well. Commissioner Nelson Peters will meet with Department of Planning leaders next week and explore whether to meet with the ULI and reconvene the task force, members of which he said were selected because of their knowledge about southwest Allen County, not because they agreed with the commissioners' position. Two powerful forces will influence what happens next.
As elected officials the Commissioners are sensitive to public opinion, but they are also judged by the strength of the local economy. Residents have twice defeated Crown's proposal by organizing and speaking up, but as one of the county's largest and most-important employers GM's voice should also be heard so an important decision is not made on the basis of a one-sided conversation.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.