PRINCETON — Gibson County Advisory Plan Commission meets in working session at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 12 in the Toyota Events Center to make a final review of the proposed Gibson County land use (zoning) ordinance and possibly vote to forward it to Gibson County Commissioners.

APC Chairman Steve Obert encouraged residents to reach out to commission members with comments or suggestions, in the interim, after the commission heard nearly two hours of comment at Wednesday’s public hearing at the fairgrounds. “I want you to feel that we have been accessible to you,” he told the audience at the events center.

“Right now, it appears if we feel comfortable with the plan, the next meeting will be to send it to county commissioners,” he explained at the outset of Wednesday’s hearing. He said the number of emails he receives from the public regarding the proposed plan are fewer, “...so I think we are getting close to exhausting people’s willingness to provide input to give us a plan that is acceptable to the county.”

Wednesday’s hearing opened after the public had an hour to look at proposed zoning maps, which are a component of the land use ordinance. Attorney Mike Schopmeyer of Kahn, Dees, Donovan & Kahn said comments and corrections regarding the maps are encouraged. He said the maps show existing land use and err on the side of agriculture.

Obert said the APC will likely need to review some portions of the ordinance at the Aug. 12 meeting, including revisiting some of the language regarding coal operations and setbacks for solar operations, among other items.

After hearing testimony regarding permitted uses, Obert clarified, “Permitted use doesn’t mean you need a permit, it means it’s a permitted use. You’re free to go home and start...It’s important to know there is no building code in this. No inspection is needed on construction...There is no architectural code. You won’t need permission for what color you want to paint your house or what kind of siding you want. We don’t want that here in Gibson County...”

Obert said there’s no need to get permission for landscaping permits or plumbing or construction. “There’s till some misconceptions on that,” he said. “I understand a lot of your opinions and views, but it’s important to understand what’s in there (the ordinance) and what’s not in there, and a lot of the concerns are not in there.”

Testimony

Seven men offered comment regarding the proposed ordinance’s regulations for coal mines, arguing that the industry is already heavily regulated and more regulations will have an adverse economic effect on the county.

Chad Sullivan, an attorney representing Gibson County Coal and Peabody Energy, said Gibson County is Indiana’s top coal producer, but the proposed language in the ordinance puts the county at a competitive disadvantage. He said that of the eight coal-producing counties in the state, three have zoning, and the top two coal producing counties have no zoning. He said the next two largest coal producing counties have zoning ordinance that have far fewer restrictions on coal mines than the proposed Gibson County ordinance. “If you pass this ordinance in the form it is, you will have the most anti-coal, the most restrictive ordinance on coal of any county in the entire state.”

He asked for full exemption of coal mining, arguing that the industry is already regulated more than any other industry. Sullivan also asserted that the zoning ordinance, as drafted violates state code.

Gibson County Coal General Manager Chris Hoppel, told the APC the local mine spent $165 million in Gibson County last year, including $43 million in wages and benefits. Over the past two decades, he estimated the mine has spent $3 billion in the county. He said the mine has 821 active leases with 629 parties, and mailed out 1,226 checks totaling $10 million to landowners. “We want to continue to do business as we have,” he said.

Indiana Coal Council President Bruce Stevens told the APC that Gibson County produces a third of the total coal production in Indiana and has a long history of active mining. He said there are still reserves to be extracted, but restrictions proposed in the zoning ordinance could jeopardize future production. “I urge you to exempt coal mining operations or reject enactment of zoning all together,” he said.

Peabody Midwest Environmental Manager James Boswell said the proposed zoning language is unnecessary and adds cost to taxpayers and business.

Attorney John Molitar spoke on behalf of residents and property owners opposed to zoning, cautioning the APC about how they may feel about passing zoning in a year or two. “...you’re probably going to get sued by people who feel like you’ve violated their property rights or violated civil rights laws,” he said. “You can get rid of it, you can repeal it in a couple of years if you want...In a couple of years, I want you to keep in mind that you can repeal it.”

Brad Mayer, Fort Branch, said he is strongly opposed to “anything that impedes property rights,” and said he views zoning as “a Trojan Horse for tyranny.”

Gary Seibert, a farmer who is retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said zoning is not what Gibson Countians want. “In my years of work with the Department of Agriculture, I’ve never seen zoning protect ag. I admire you guys for your hard work, but...this is not what we want. It’s very obvious that most of us here are not for it. Zoning and agriculture don’t work.”

Dr. Terry Unfried, a Gibson County resident, said he’s adamantly opposed to any form of zoning.

Mary McKinney expressed her frustration at being unable to ask questions of Gibson County Commissioners about zoning at commissioner meetings. “If you can’t ask a question to the people who are actually going vote on zoning, then there is definitely something wrong,” she said.

Mike Chamberlain of Fort Branch expressed his frustration at the meetings on zoning being done “while battling a terrible pandemic and parents can’t come, although they oppose zoning.” He said zoning is attractive to developers, but “I guarantee the little guy is going to get hurt by this... Don’t put it in place to begin with. We’re paying our tax dollars to have this done to us...We do not need any help to make our financial decisions...”

Tim Goad told the APC zoning is “something we do not need, and the majority of citizens do not want...We don’t need to do anything to discourage coal energy. I’ve got land leased for coal. I’m counting on that in retirement. You’ve basically stolen my retirement from me, of what I get out of that coal lease, if you pass this zoning to where it’s overly burdensome to these different mines.”

Kent Scheller said Gibson County has missed past development opportunities due to lack of a comprehensive plan and zoning, and he believes zoning will help generate more jobs. He encouraged the APC to keep language on wind development regarding protection of the Doppler radar, setbacks, decommissioning bonds and a curtailment agreement between a developer, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and Gibson County. “Residents should not be expected to compromise their own safety and way of life,” he said.

Scheller also said he’s disappointed to hear of threats being made to commissioners, arguments and spreading of misinformation. “If coercion and threats of violence are made... then you are in the wrong side of right and wrong,” he said. “I pray this does not continue. This is not the type of Gibson County I know.”

Union Township Advisory Board member Warren Fleetwood had several questions about how the zoning ordinance would affect home-based businesses. He asked APC members to consider a moratorium on the ordinance. “I don’t know your personal thoughts, but it would just allow you more time to take into consideration last minute revisions.”

Les Kiesel, Gibson County, told the APC that he’s heard a lot of people think wind turbines were a way for commissioners to get zoning in. But he said wind turbines proposed after the 2017-18 study of zoning was halted are a perfect example of what it’s needed. “I would lose my property rights if the St. Louis Arch moves in on three sides of me,” he said. “ Commissioners didn’t want to touch it,” he told the APC, but concerns about compromising the integrity of the Doppler radar came up, “and it became clear that there is nothing that can protect the Doppler, it’s up to the commissioners. They have no choice but to address the Doppler. The only way is through zoning.” Kiesel said commissioners voted to reconvene the APC “only after we went to state and federal lawmakers, all our senators — only after that. Over the last 18 months I have been to countless commissioner and APC meetings and have been able to speak before, during and after. To say that we have not had the ability to have input, to say this is being done in secret, I’m just saying that’s ridiculous.”

Jeff Seibert, a Gibson County resident, thanked the APC for their work and said he admires the level of professionalism members have shown. “I’ve been against zoning. I realize it is not your job to decide if zoning is right for the county or not. Your job is to decide if this is the best plan to suit the county’s needs.” But he said their work is based on an extremely outdated plan and whatever scary thing we are trying to keep out... I can’t possibly help but think it is a bit ironic that we are all here in a pandemic, risking our health, talking about health and safety risk...I do think we’re focusing too much on the scary thing of the day,” he said, referring to the proposed wind turbines, but noted that other development, such as truck stops, can have an adverse impact on residents.

Sarah Hassenour thanked the APC for putting health and safety of citizens first. “Thank you for that. We do feel heard, regardless of what you’re hearing over and over. I support zoning because I know it protects my freedom. We know that zoning is our only means of protection (from proposed wind turbine development), a safety ordinance cannot be passed without zoning.”

Larry Michel, Fort Branch, said Gibson County has always been agricultural, and he hears talk about economic development. “Agriculture is economic development,” he said.

Dave McKinney told the APC the proposed setbacks for wind turbines basically prevent wind energy developers from locating in the county. He said he has signed a lease contract for 44 acres of his property to be developed for solar energy, but the setback requirements in the proposed ordinance would mean a loss of $92,000 in income to his family over a 30-year lease.

— Email Andrea Howe at andrea@pdclarion.com

— Email Andrea Howe at andrea@pdclarion.com

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