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INDIANA BOROUGH: Leaders air vision on future

by on September 18, 2013 11:00 AM

What areas of Indiana Borough need more planned development?

Should certain sections of the borough be re-zoned to achieve desired development goals?

Should the borough’s 45-year-old zoning ordinance, updated in 1998, continue to be the guide for leading development, or should that document be rewritten?

What tools will help young families purchase former student rental properties in residential zones as IUP students move into high-density student housing complexes close to campus?

Those were some of the questions raised Tuesday as Indiana council and the borough’s planning commission members continued their series of joint meetings on Indiana’s future.

Dennis Martinak, a consultant with Mackin Engineering Company, of Pittsburgh, guided the two groups through Tuesday’s visioning session. Community visioning, he said, is a process as well as an end product and helps the residents of a community decide where they want their town to be in the future and how to keep it on track to achieve desired goals.

Some highlights of the visioning comments:

• Councilman John Hartman said he believes the U-1 (university-related) zone on the north side of the IUP campus is not working. Much of that area has been purchased by the university and “there’s no buffer left” between the university and residential areas, he said.

Councilman Richard Thorell noted IUP’s enrollment is projected to fall for the next several years and questioned whether council needs to worry about expanding the U-1 Zone.

A buffer is probably not necessary for homes across a street from an IUP classroom building, he said. But “if it’s (across from) a student dormitory, watch out,” Thorell said.

• “We had a good game plan (in the borough zoning ordinance), but we kind of let our emotions get in the way” and that resulted in some controversial student housing projects being built under the Traditional Neighborhood Development Overlay Zone ordinance that some borough residents criticized, said council president Nancy Jones.

In some instances, Jones said, council allowed developers to come in “and dictate to us what our areas are going to be like” by saying “I’m going to bring in all this revenue for the borough (by building a multi-million development). … Grant me waivers to let me do this for you.”

Jones also said she believes council did a good thing in repealing the TND overlay zone in July.

• Planning commission member Nick Karas said he feels the planning commission is getting a lot of blame for some of the unpopular student housing projects recently completed in the borough. “But contradictions in the zoning ordinance led us here,” he said. “The architectural integrity of what was built was not the architectural integrity of what we were sold” by developers.

• Thorell said the TND overlay helped accomplish the goal of congregating students in high-density buildings close to campus, albeit with “some negative consequences.”

Karas agreed, saying he’s seen many “for rent” signs at houses in residential neighborhoods.

Opinions were expressed that eventually some of those rental units will go up for sale as more and more students move closer to campus.

Councilman Gerald Smith asked what’s available to help young families acquire those former rental houses when they do come onto the real estate market?

Many of those properties will need substantial deferred maintenance, said councilman Ross Bricklemyer.

• Hartman suggested council and the planners need to provide more space for parks and recreational areas in each ward, and for “mom-and-pop grocery stores,” even in residential zones, to support the concept of walkable communities.

• Planning commission chairman Jeff Grim said he believes the borough zoning ordinance should be re-written.

“I can’t see how the ordinance has worked” since the borough has lost population over the past three decades, he said.

Thorell disagreed, contending the zoning ordinance has worked with the exception of the TND overlay.

Rather than scraping the zoning ordinance, “I would prefer to see an incremental approach” to solutions by identifying the most pressing problem and dealing with it within a few months, Thorell said.

• Taxes, not a dysfunctional zoning ordinance, may be a main reason why residents are moving from the borough, said councilman Larry DeChurch. And some constituents feel Indiana’s business district is “getting all the goodies,” he said.

• The Wayne Avenue corridor is an under-developed entrance to Indiana, said planning commission member Kevin Patrick. The corridor is hampered because it has three development zones that are not compatible, he said.

• Thorell said that despite all the best planning efforts by council and the commission, “Some things are out of our control.” What, for example, he said, will be the impact on the borough if an Indiana Area School District board of directors decides to close one or more elementary schools in the borough?

Consultant Martinak ended Tuesday’s session by asking each of the council and commission members what they would show friends visiting Indiana?

The most common responses were Philadelphia Street and the IUP campus.

Martwak also asked them what they felt were the biggest obstacles Indiana must overcome.

Some of the answers to that question were traffic, a lack of vacant land, a need for more constructive engagement with IUP at the administration level, an aging infrastructure and sufficient funds to do everything the borough leaders would like to do.

Martwak said the next visioning session between council and the planning commission will likely be held next month.

Randy Wells has been a reporter and staff writer at The Indiana Gazette since 1988. His regular assignments include coverage of the Indiana County commissioners, Indiana Borough council and the Marion Center Area School District. His email address is
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