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Lebanon City Council considers key ordinances to create massive industrial district

Lebanon Mayor Matt Gentry listens to a state presentation on the LEAP district Monday night (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)
Lebanon Mayor Matt Gentry listens to a state presentation on the LEAP district Monday night (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

The Lebanon City Council considered several key ordinances Monday night aimed at creating a massive industrial district the state hopes to place within the city.

The vision for the roughly seven thousand acre project includes multi-billion dollar tech and research companies within a complex that has room for housing, recreation, and retail spaces.

To that end, the council considered one ordinance annexing over 5,000 acres of property in surrounding Boone County to bring them into the city. A second ordinance would create a special zoning designation specifically for the project.

Ben Bontrager is the director of planning for the city of Lebanon. He said the special zoning creates a number of very specific uses for the property that includes higher standards than the city’s more basic industrial zoning - especially when a residential property sits adjacent to the new district.

“If there is a proposal for a building taller than 75 feet, for every one foot the building is taller than 75 feet, their setback increases by five feet,” he said. “Those setbacks are significant. We really want to make sure we’re providing protection for those existing residents out there.”

Setbacks are the distance a structure needs to be from the property line. In the case of the setbacks proposed in the ordinance, Bontrager said they would also include buffer requirements – such as mounds, landscaping, and trees.

“What we really wanted to do is make sure we’re providing those protections and increasing those setbacks as those buildings get taller to minimize the impact. We’re certainly not going to get rid of any impact visually, but to minimize those,” he said.

The zoning is so specific as to outline the types of industries the state and city hope to attract: aerospace parts manufacturing, electric motor vehicles, medical diagnostic laboratories, and semiconductor manufacturing, among others.

Community members have raised concerns about the uncertainty surrounding what the final project will look like and how it will impact them - with some pointing out that, without knowing what kinds of companies will go into the district, it’s not clear whether they’ll be able to tolerate the new complex.

During a discussion of those ordinances, the state offered a presentation on what the district could look like that seemed geared towards alleviating some of these concerns.

David Rosenberg, Chief Operating Officer of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, underlined that the Limitless Exploration/Advanced Pace, or LEAP, district will focus not just on bringing high-wage jobs to the region, but also on aesthetics.

“We’ll have research and development lab spaces, and a key focus on the aesthetics,” he said. “Sustainability, streams, setbacks, walking paths – all of those are critically important to the vision and the focus of LEAP.”

A slide from the state's presentation on the proposed LEAP district (photo courtesy of the IEDC)
A slide from the state's presentation on the proposed LEAP district (photo courtesy of the IEDC)

Following Rosenberg’s presentation, members of the city council began asking questions about water. The state has identified Lebanon as an area with long-term water availability concerns, which has raised red flags for neighboring communities about how the industrial district will get its supply.

Early proposals have included plans to pipe millions of gallons of water down from Tippecanoe County every day.

Lebanon city council member Dick Robertson asked Rosenberg how he could be sure water withdrawals wouldn’t harm surrounding areas.

“If we’re taking water from someone else I don’t want that to happen from another community,” he said. “Is there that much water available?”

Rosenberg responded that as long as the Great Lakes had water, the LEAP district would too.

“I’m not a hydrologist. We have hydrologists and consultants on staff that are looking at this,” he said. “We have been told unequivocally that yes, there is enough water – wherever it pulls from it will not impact that community.”

Broadly, community members gathered in the council chambers were not reassured by the state’s presentation. In the roughly hour-long public hearing on the annexation ordinance, multiple people spoke in opposition of the project.

Boone County resident Kim Love worried that the state was directing the changes to the county and city - not residents or local officials.

“You guys need to take care of this county and this city,” she said. “If you need to tell the IEDC ‘no’ to part of their plan, then please use that word.”

Michael Andreoli is an attorney representing the Boone County Preservation Group, which is made up of residents who want more clarity about the development - and how it might impact them. He said the state’s presentation wasn’t enough.

“There was no meat on the bone,” he said. “There was no specifics. There was none of that information that was available to rezone three to four to five thousand acres.”

Andreoli said the city is rezoning thousands of acres without a legitimate plan.

“There was nothing there,” he said. “Just a concept plan showing zoning classifications, which is essentially just a map.”

Lebanon Mayor Matt Gentry said the state has been clear about how the proposed district might look.

“There was a lot of details presented in what the state wants to do, what the vision is,” he said. “I think they were very clear with what we’re trying to go after with this development. I think it’s showing what the vision is for this going forward.”

According to Gentry, additional clarity may be on its way. He said two companies are within the 30 to 60 day time window to make a commitment to the district.

“These companies are trying to make decisions soon and they need the understanding of what are the zoning requirements,” he said. “They need direction on that before we can continue to progress. Hopefully those are great things for us and great announcements and hopefully we can win those because it just shows proof of concept.”

The two ordinances will be up for final approval before the council on Dec. 12.