Writer / Alaina Sullivan
Photographer / Forrest Mellott
The growth of a successful community is more than just physical expansion. It takes work, thought and effort, as well as planning for the future. That plan needs to give the community direction to keep it growing and thriving. Most cities and towns have extensive plans to ensure just that. Unincorporated areas, however, present a whole other challenge.
Center Grove is an area that presents one of those challenges. According to David Hittle, Director of Johnson County Department of Planning and Zoning, Center Grove is the most highly populated area in Indiana without a special land use overlay. Approximately 25,000 residents live in Center Grove, but the majority of this land is unincorporated.
This is not to say that Center Grove is not quickly growing. These areas have been developed largely by the market and developers, Hittle said, and the loosely-written plan that is in place gives precious little guidance on what to put there. Needless to say, a plan is long overdue.
It’s Not About Becoming a Town
The goal of this project is not to advocate for Center Grove as a town but rather to grow the unincorporated community of Johnson County and see it thrive. “It’s really rare for an unincorporated area [this heavily populated] to never become incorporated,” said Hittle.
The first step, said Hittle, is to identify the critical areas. Critical areas are those corridors, tracts, intersections or other definable places that present challenges or opportunities for development and land use, today or in the future.
The Department of Zoning and Planning intends to start through the voice of the community. Approval was given for a steering committee to be created to discuss critical areas and possible plans for the future. The steering committee is composed of representatives from area neighborhoods, businesses, schools, developers and a general representative cross-section of people in Center Grove.
This initial step will be a fluid process and not necessarily a lengthy one, Hittle said. They do not anticipate walking away with a full course comprehensive plan. That will come later.
“We are just fixing the future landuse map and establishing these critical areas,” said Hittle. “I am also expecting people to take these issues back to their families and coworkers and will want to introduce other ideas.”
One of these ideas involves a trails plan for Johnson County. The committee considers trails to be a great amenity to improve people’s quality of life. One task will be to look for gaps in the existing sidewalk networks to fill in order to enhance the length of a trail. The steering committee will look closely at where these trails would best fit.
“Priority routes will be established as there are opportunities to look for federal money. We will have already established the best bang for your buck to build trails,” said Hittle.
One obvious critical area involves the region of State Road 37 where construction of Interstate 69 is still an option being discussed by another group. Discussions are whether that area should be zoned for commercial development or left as farmland. However, the goal is not to make any decisions just yet. That is not the only critical point being examined.
“It is not really about us deciding what a place should be,” said Hittle. “It is more about us getting that information out of the people that actually live there.” A start would be to pull out the vision of the people that live in the area.
The initial steering committee meeting was held October 20 where the entire committee was divided into four groups, given maps of the unincorporated areas of Johnson County and asked to identify critical areas in the township where there are planning issues, the good and the bad.
“It went very well. I think we put out maybe 17 invitations, and we had about 20 people in total come,” said Hittle. “It was a good cross-section of people that live in White River Township. The feedback from everybody was very positive. They were very engaged and excited by the process.”
The steering committee will meet monthly for right now as Hittle anticipates the group dividing into specific sub-committees.
Hittle walked away from this first meeting encouraged and excited to move ahead.
“I think there is a thirst among people for community,” said Hittle. “I think if we get a critical mass of people out, they will see that they have a direct impact on the decisions that will be made in the next 25-30 years.”