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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Edward Baatz holds a photo of his former farm off Rothman Road, now the Valencia subdivision.

Urban zone is moving out – and fast

County loses swaths of rural land

The Journal Gazette

– It was the third crash that did it.

With the city closing in and traffic intolerable, the three accidents Edward Baatz had while driving his tractor and grain truck on Rothman Road convinced him to sell the family farm in 2005.

So, the old homestead is now the Valencia subdivision of luxury houses, site of the 2011 Parade of Homes and part of Allen County’s sprawling urban landscape. Fact is, the federal government considered the farm urban years before Baatz decided to sell it.

Unconcerned with city boundaries, new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau draw a picture of a rapidly expanding urban zone in the state’s largest county.

Since 1990, Allen County’s urban area – based largely on population density – has grown by 68 square miles. Last decade alone, Allen’s urban area grew by 36 square miles, according to census figures. If square it would be 6 miles on all sides.

That growth is second only to the 43 square miles gained in Hamilton County, north of Indianapolis, and the fastest-growing county in the state. But while Hamilton’s population grew by 50 percent last decade, Allen’s grew by 7 percent. Perhaps not surprising, people in Allen, with lots of land, have become much more spread out.

“I guess our sheer size would be one of the reasons we would be second,” said John Stafford, director of the Community Research Institute at IPFW. “We have a large population base, and we continue to have substantial movement of population within the community continuing to move further out.”

Allen County Farm Bureau’s president cautions against the loss of farmland, but local planners say measures are in place for reasonable growth.

The census definition of “urban,” local planners say, is not necessarily what they use when making decisions. It might seem a stretch that, for the first time, Grabill, a town of 1,053 people in far northeast Allen County, where Amish buggies are nearly as common as cars, is a part of the Fort Wayne urban area.

Even the census definition of “urban area” changes decade to decade. Fort Wayne International Airport was included in the urban area in 1990, not included in 2000 and included again in 2010, according to census maps. A bit of Huntington County was included in 2000, but not in 2010, when some of Whitley County was added for the first time.

A uniform nationwide definition is the aim when it comes to handing out federal money for roads, mass transit and other projects in urban and rural regions, said Dan Avery, director of the Northeast Indiana Regional Coordinating Council, a local transportation planning agency.

“Because federal money and some of the distribution of money is based off these populations, you’ve got to have a fairly consistent” criterion, he said.

Under the census definition, whatever isn’t urban is rural. Therefore, rural health clinics are identified for federal funding through urban areas, according to the Census Bureau.

Even with the urban growth, Allen County remains three-fourths rural.

But while it can be argued Allen County has plenty of acreage, “We’re not making any more land,” said Roger Hadley, Allen County Farm Bureau president. With food prices rising and a hungry world wanting more, Hadley pushes for restraint.

“I’ve never been one in favor of government telling people what they can and can’t do, but we’re going to have to do something shortly to keep people from building out in the countryside and taking good land and having less and less to produce a crop on,” he said.

Baatz, whose former farm has been within Fort Wayne’s urban area since at least 1990, believes urban planning is more controlled than it used to be. He may speak for many when he voices the frustrations of farming near a city. Farmers have to be mindful of their city neighbors when it comes to spraying fields and the smell that often comes from a farm, he said. And, there’s the traffic.

“They just don’t respect the equipment,” he said

So Baatz, 60, and his aunt, who owned adjacent land, sold about 160 acres to developers. The land has not been annexed into the city despite three sides bordered by Fort Wayne. Baatz said he still owns a few acres off Rothman Road, but moved his farming operation to DeKalb County.

“I decided if I’m going to move, I need to move while I still have the energy,” he said. “It takes a lot to move a farm.”

While local agencies might generally disregard federal urban designations in favor of their own in determining where money should be spent, the census numbers make clear Allen County’s population has become more widespread.

At the beginning of the last decade, there were 2,128 people per square mile in the Fort Wayne urban area. By 2010 there were 1,824.5 people per square mile. In comparison, Hamilton County’s urban area became more densely populated, going from 405 to 1,854.9 people per square mile in the same period.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that the more dense you are, services can be provided more efficiently and often effectively,” said Pam Holocher, Fort Wayne’s deputy director of community development. “One of our goals is to build density in our urban core because it is so much more efficient for everything from providing transportation to providing water and sewer services; it’s less you have to maintain.”

For the city, “urban” often defines areas needing to be revitalized, Holocher said. As part of Plan-it Allen, a city-county land planning guide, the city offers incentives for developing in areas needing it, Holocher said.

For planners, uncontrolled growth is the potential problem. Avery calls it “leapfrog” development, in which projects are not adjoined.

“We want to grow as a community,” he said. “I think the planning agencies, the planning commissions, have been pretty good about contiguous growth.”

Allen’s census-defined urban zone reaches west into Whitley County for the first time, taking in a housing division near the Indiana 14/West County Line Road intersection. And the zone’s northern reach is within two miles of DeKalb County.

Stafford expects Fort Wayne’s urban area to spread further into Whitley County and probably DeKalb in coming years, which will introduce planning issues and “different players” not seen in the past, he said

“That kind of changes the dynamics for everybody, certainly for those two counties and for Allen County,” he said.

But Holocher said the region shouldn’t be compared to the outward move in Marion County, home to Indianapolis.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that in the southwest that growth could go into the next county,” she said of development in Allen County. “But we’re not like Marion County and Indianapolis, where Marion County is pretty much all developed now.” There’s plenty of room within Allen County for development, she added, “so at least as of yet, I don’t think we’ve had a concern about that.”