PRINCETON — Gibson County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to reactivate an advisory plan commission to study potential zoning for the county.

The advisory planning commission was activated in November 2017 to study a 164-page comprehensive land-use plan developed in 2009, but was halted on March 6, 2018. During its active period, the APC conducted three public hearings where the topic of zoning was hotly contested, and a lawsuit was threatened against the county.

Last fall, a group of citizens opposed to proposed wind turbines near the county's Doppler radar near Owensville appealed to commissioners to adopt zoning, but residents opposed to zoning threatened another fight if the board re-launched the study.

County Attorney Jim McDonald read the resolution to resume the activities of the APC at Tuesday morning's first commissioner meeting of the year, and commissioners voted unanimously to approve it, then approved the appointment of APC members Mary Key (commissioner), Mike Stilwell (county councilman), Scott Martin (county surveyor), Addie Thornley (Purdue Extension Gibson County), Ken Beckerman, April Graper, Mike McConnell, Steve Obert and Greg Reising.

The board also voted unanimously to re-hire Kahn, Dees, Donovan and Kahn law firm to assist with the exploration of land use planning, which drew comment later from resident Cecil "Bob" Allen about where the money to pay the law firm would come from.

"We (the county) spent a ton of money on this situation the last time," Allen told commissioners.

Key and Gibson County Auditor Sherri Smith confirmed the county spent about $183,000 to $184,000 on legal fees associated with the project in 2017-2018 before it was shelved.

Board of Commissioners President Gerald Bledsoe said the funds for the legal services could come from the commissioners' contract services budget, and perhaps also from the county's share of Economic Development Income Tax revenue.

Allen told commissioners that spending EDIT money to explore zoning would affect the funds available for county road paving projects.

He asked commissioners how many meetings would be conducted during the process, and whether the county is starting from scratch or using the 2009 plan that he described as "obsolete" as a basis to resume land-use study. McDonald said at least three APC meetings plus a meeting of commissioners would be required.

"We're not starting from the very beginning," Key said. "We're moving forward from where we left off."

He asked the board what would prevent RWE (the wind turbine company) from starting construction on turbines while the APC is still in deliberation, exempting them from new rules through zoning.

"There's nothing to stop them, we we also don't have any road use agreements yet with RWD," McDonald told him.

"The last time you studied this, the citizens were very against zoning," Allen told commissioners. "I wonder if you guys forgot who sent you to this party, this dance?"

He also asked them if they were pursuing the zoning study for their own personal gain, but Key responded, "I'm not sure what we would have to gain by it. Some people are for it, some are against it and some don't care one way or another."

Another resident who did not identify himself questioned the composition of the APC, asking why there aren't more members from the north or south portions of the county "where the windmills are going."

David McKinney asked commissioners what type of rules for the public meetings would be in place. "We don't want a gag order," he told the board, reflecting on past APC meetings where members of the public were limited to speaking for three minutes.

Commissioner Steve Bottoms took exception to the description of the ground rules as a "gag order," noting that McKinney did speak twice at the APC's public meetings.

"That was a gag order on me and a lot of people felt the same way," McKinney told the board.

No APC meeting dates were scheduled or announced at Tuesday's commissioner meeting, but the panel is subject to the Indiana Open Door Law's requirements for public meetings.

During Tuesday's discussion, Gibson County Floodplain Management Supervisor Stephanie McKinney reported that her office has been contacted by the wind turbine company representatives since floodplain regulations mandated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Indiana Department of Natural Resource do require permits.

She said RWE hasn't submitted any studies or updated site plans to her office yet. She said the floodplain management office requires permits and other conditions regarding any construction within floodplains. "That is a type of zoning if you want to call it that."

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