The Carmel Plan Commission has been considering whether to rezone a piece of land on Main Street from residential to commercial. The issue was brought to the Carmel City Council on Feb. 16 but now city legal officials insist that neighbors weren’t properly notified that this was occurring.
Soori Ardalan, owner of the Soori Gallery nearby, is looking to take 0.33 acres of land located at 321 W. Main St., across from the Beauty Lounge, and tear down the existing house to build a business structure similar to the size of the nearby Evan Lurie building.
Since this is within the archways of the Carmel Arts & Design District, Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said constructing a multi-story building fits with the character of the area. Yet he would prefer that the entire block be rezoned all at once and not done piecemeal.
The plan commission reported:
“Petitioner had not gotten any other neighbors on board with doing a full block rezone, but none were opposed to this one property being rezoned. Several committee members voiced concern about only one property being rezoned, especially since there is no proposed plan. There was concern about the potential for a three story building to be built on the property next to existing homes. Committee thought it would be best for the whole block to be rezoned and was in favor of that. There is potential for redevelopment on the block to the east as all but one property is under the same ownership. It was discussed that the City could try to work with the neighbors to get the entire block rezoned. It was concluded that the Petitioner’s timeline is 1 year to 1 ½ years so nothing would be happening right away, and maybe in the meantime the other properties could be rezoned. Then, there was a 4-1 vote on a Favorable Recommendation to the Plan Commission, with Nick Kestner not in favor.”
But reading that in the newspaper was quite a shock to some neighbors who contacted Current in Carmel. At first, they thought it was inaccurate reporting because they said they were never notified or contacted so they strongly opposed the statement: “None were opposed to this one property being rezoned.”
Beth Meyers, who owns the yellow cottage home at 331 W. Main Street next to the property, sent the following e-mail to several city officials and I was CC’ed on the e-mail:
“I agreed with their decision that re-zoning of one property in the middle of two smaller residential properties did seem, at the very least, esthetically unappealing for the District.
In a conversation I had Friday with Mike Hollibaugh, it seems proper notification procedures were not accomplished prior to the Plan Commission meeting regarding this matter and false information was submitted. This fact alone would make this agenda item of the next Council meeting null and void.
I live at 331 W. Main Street, adjacent to the property that Ms. Ardalan is seeking to re-zone. I am extremely interested and rather alarmed as to the type of structure that she is seeking to construct if rezoning is approved. I feel we may be in danger of losing the quaintness that comes as a result of the historic overlay in place, not to mention the possible increase in taxes and traffic/parking logistics; concerns of other neighbors as well. Recently, the 321 house was on a list to be included in the historic registry. Has this decision been made and who makes these types of decisions?
I would like this letter to serve as my official objection to the rezoning application pending further information and/or detailed plans as to the type/size of building and the guaranteed nature of its business (i.e. art gallery, restaurant, etc).
Please inform me, following proper notification procedures, of any upcoming Commission or Council meetings concerning this matter. The outcome and decisions made by the Plan Commission and City Council directly affect my property and the quality of life that I bought into when I purchased my property less than 1-1/2 years ago, and will have a huge impact on the future of this small but strategic block within the Carmel Arts & Design District.”
I immediately spoke to Meyers over the phone and she told me that, “It’s funny because they never talked to any of the neighbors. I was never contacted by the planning commission and I live right next door.”
“I was under the understanding that this was a long-term plan,” she said. “I was told that wouldn’t happen for five to ten years.”
She said the house was built in 1892 and she’s concerned about what could go in this spot. I shared the plan commission report with her and she was concerned about the statement: “Several committee members voiced concern about only one property being rezoned, especially since there is no proposed plan. There was concern about the potential for a three story building to be built on the property next to existing homes.”
“I haven’t been told anything about what it could be,” Meyers said over the phone. “I’m just concerned because I wouldn’t want a restaurant next to me. The parking, the traffic, the smell. She said she was going to put an art gallery there, but if those plans change that would concern me.”
From there, I spoke to City Council President Rick Sharp who said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to Ardalan’s plans for the area and that it will only be a matter of time before someone develops that land in the thriving Arts District. The City Council agenda had not been release to the public at the time of the phone call and Sharp told me that he doubted it would make it on the public hearing at the next council meeting and would probably wait until March.
When I saw that it was indeed on the council agenda for the meeting on the 16th, I e-mailed Sharp (because we spoke about this) and Seidensticker (because he represents the area). I wrote: “I see the issue of a rezone on the public hearing but I have neighbors tell me they weren’t notified. Is that true?”
Sharp didn’t respond (to be fair, it was on Monday) but Seidensticker e-mailed back to say, “Guess we’ll see. She has been advised to seek legal representation so that all is done properly. I’ve been told she did not originally have representation. Whom have you been told that didn’t receive notification?” He later sent another e-mail to say, “Notice is done by certified mail to a specific area.”
When the Carmel City Council meeting reached that point of the agenda, Soori Ardalan stood at the podium ready to speak about what she planned to do with the land. Typically, matters such as a rezone have to be noticed and then a public hearing is held so anyone can voice their support or opposition to the project.
Before Ardalan could speak, City Councilor Sue Finkam interrupted to say that there was a note from the assistant city attorney and that they shouldn’t proceed with the public hearing. Sharp said they would proceed and Ardalan gave her short remarks.
Afterwards, it was explained the public notice might not have been properly followed. Houses next to the property need to be sent certified mail – which ensures that they received it – in order to let everyone know about the public hearings. In this case, it’s believed that houses directly next to the property were notified, but there’s uncertainty about houses two deep, which is required in this case.
The responsibility usually falls on the petitioner, which is Ardalan, but some said that she was given improper information and might not have sought legal help prior to the process. Nobody focused too much on who was to blame and every city councilor emphasized that Ardalan is not the bad guy in this situation, but the question became what to do now?
Mayor Brainard, Planning and Zoning Director Mike Hollibaugh and Assistant City Attorney Ashley M. Ulbricht all suggested that the matter be sent back to the plan commission so proper notice can be accomplished and then the matter would be sent back to the council when ready. They said this is to avoid any lawsuits if someone doesn’t like any outcomes.
Sharp disagreed, saying that the plan commission suspended its own rules and that he trusts the legal counsel of the plan commission and he didn’t want to punish Ardalan. He later told Current in Carmel that he didn’t want to rush into any decision and he said if the council were to reject the proposal then there’s a possibility that it could mean a longer timeline for Ardalan, possibly up to a year.
“I don’t understand the need to rush,” he said after the meeting. “Let’s take the time to explore these decisions carefully. If it’s illegal, we’ll deal with it. We didn’t have to deal with this tonight. Every time this council is forced to act quickly, it makes me want to take time to look at the situation.”
Brainard said he wasn’t asking for the council to reject anything. He said the council couldn’t reject the matter since the matter shouldn’t have been brought to the council in the first place, so it wasn’t a proper matter of business that night from a legal standpoint.
At any rate, Sharp kept the public hearing open which meant people could come up to the podium to comment.
Kelly Baskett, resident of 400 Emerson Road, said she’s about 100 feet away from the property and she wasn’t notified. She spoke in opposition to the project and elaborated on her comments in an interview later with Current in Carmel.
“I don’t like a large structure in the middle of where we have homes,” she told Current. “That’s a very daunting and bullying kind of structure. We don’t want to lose our character.”
Sharp said he made the decision to keep the public hearing open so it’s now possible for anyone to attend any council meeting and speak about the topic in the public comment section of the meetings. He sent the matter to committee so it could later be determined what to do and Sharp said he might just end up agreeing with Mayor Brainard but that he wanted to have time to get some advice on the matter.
Brainard pointed out that Ulbricht, the city’s legal representative, could have advised him on the matter but he refused to let her speak. Brainard called Sharp’s decision to not allow her to speak as “arrogant.”
“Attorneys have an obligation to accurately advise the client,” Brainard later told Current. “I’m not sure we are on a different side here. There’s an argument over nothing.”
Sharp disagrees with Brainard’s characterization and said he doesn’t like to be rushed into decisions by the Brainard Administration, pointing out past history with council business regarding Keystone Avenue.
Brainard said he disagrees with Sharp that keeping the public hearing open will solve the issue of transparency and public notice. He said there needs to be a new public hearing at the Carmel Plan Commission level with proper notice. He said it’s a two-step process and breaking from that can open the city up to liability.
City Councilor Sue Finkam agrees.
“I didn’t want to open the public hearing because it shouldn’t have been had,” she said. “It needs to be noticed again and the city faces liability for opening a public hearing without proper notice.”
City Councilor Kevin “Woody” Rider serves as the council’s representative to the plan commission so he has an understanding of what’s going on. He said he originally supported bringing the matter to the council because he wants to see the council do a complete rezone of the whole block. He said he understands that people – such as Meyers in her yellow cottage – might have objections to seeing their homes rezoned as businesses, but he said there’s nothing to fear. Nobody is making them sell their property or move. He said tax rates will be higher for commercial businesses, but he said there will be exceptions for people living residentially in the area. He pointed out that the homes would increase in value if they did try to sell because now the new owner has many options for what to do with the property.
“You can live there as long as you want,” he said. “Your family can live there for generations. People fear what they don’t know. The people who have talked to me like the idea that the city does the rezone and we improve the value of your property for if you ever decide to resell it.”
Rider said there’s no rush because he believes that Ardalan isn’t going to start construction anytime soon.
“It doesn’t harm her to withdraw and let us do the rezone,” he said. “We’re not in a rush.”
Sharp kept mentioning that he thinks people should remember the cost that Ardalan put in to get herself to this point, but Brainard disagreed, saying that she didn’t hire an attorney so her cost is minimal.
If you live in the neighborhood and have thoughts on this matter, e-mail me at [email protected].