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The Journal Gazette

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Residents of Winters Road enjoy an evening stroll along the street. Marty and Lynn Doak are fighting the proposed GM entrance at the dead end of Winters Road.

  • Doak

Sunday, June 19, 2016 9:16 am

Neighbors fret over traffic as GM expands

Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette

For years, Lynn Doak of Roanoke has seen shiny new General Motors pickup trucks driving up and down her street, which borders the north side of the company’s sprawling factory complex in Allen County’s Lafayette Township.

The company, she said, has been using the county road to test-drive new trucks, and that doesn’t bother her.

What does upset Doak is what she fears is about to come from her giant corporate neighbor.

In a year or so, Doak said, more than a thousand additional vehicles a day may be using the street – the 11300 block of Winters Road. That’s because GM will open a long-unused entrance beyond what is now the road’s dead-end to serve employees of its expanding facility.

Doak believes that means the transformation of the quiet road to one that could potentially have traffic jams three times a day as shifts start and end.

It’s the kind of thing that often sends residents to the government for redress – and she and her husband, Marty, were no exception.

But, Doak said, after calling and writing everyone she could think of, she and her neighbors have found they apparently have scant recourse to plans Doak said she discovered only in an offhand conversation with someone familiar with GM.

"They told me they don’t have to give notice," Doak said, referring to county officials. "They don’t have to have any (public) hearings. … It’s a done deal. Everything is approved."

County officials told The Journal Gazette that apparently is the case. Because of the way the GM facility was planned back in the 1980s, many decisions about its development can be made in-house, they said.    

GM officials have said the entrance at the northeast end of the complex will serve employees who will work at a new paint facility and associated locations planned as part of the $1.2 billion expansion announced in May 2015. That will amount to 250 people per shift, said Tom Wickham, a GM spokesman.

A rudimentary gated entrance has been in place for some time. GM officials wrote County Commissioner Nelson Peters that the entrance is needed now because employees who will work in the new GM buildings would need to walk long dis­tances to get to their jobs if they used the existing entrance and parking lots – up to a half-mile.

Wickham said in an email that no heavy trucks would use the Winters Road entrance. Suppliers would still use the complex’s main entrance, and employees who work at other places on the property would continue to use the existing employee entrance.

Kim Bowman, executive director of the Allen County Department of Planning Services, said GM’s changes for the property aren’t open now to public scrutiny. 

When the site was first planned in the 1980s, she said, no development plan was required for its Industrial 3 zoning classification. Since then, GM has submitted plans for changes and additions on the property several times, but they have been approved in a process known as administrative review, without public notice or a public hearing, Bowman said.

However, the plans ­aren’t secret, she pointed out – they’re available online through the county’s Accela portal. 

Bowman said GM’s case is not unique. Administrative reviews are being used more often after revisions to county zoning laws in 2014, she said; the revisions upped requirements for changes to an already-developed property that might affect adjacent residential development in exchange for streamlining the approval process.

As long as proposed changes meet zoning requirements and development standards, they can be approved in an administrative review, Bowman said. She gave as an example of development that could be approved that way an expansion of a supermarket in an already-developed shopping center.

"It’s good for economic development," she said of the administrative review process. "We have busi­nesses coming in and jobs being created, and we’re a lot more competitive because we have a good current ordinance."

Bill Hartman, director of the Allen County Highway Department, said the entrance also did not require public notice or a hearing. He acknowledges millions of dollars in state highway money were passed to the county for infrastructure improvements as an incentive for the GM expansion.

He said the change is on the GM property, not the existing Winters Road, which will be extended to the entrance and parking lot as a public right of way. At a public meeting April 22, Hartman presented an agreement for $4.6 million for the project to county commissioners, who approved it.

GM also received a $5 million Indiana Economic Development Corp. grant tagged for infrastructure that was announced at the same time as the plant expansion. Abby Gras, IEDC spokeswoman said GM would have applied for the grant but said she did not have more information about that or the specific use for the grant.

Hartman said the new entrance affects relatively few people. Maps of the area show about 10 residences along the affected stretch of Winters Road – with the majority on large lots and built since 2002, after the GM plant.

There is also a vacant tract owned by Granite Ridge Builders, which plans to subdivide the land into eight lots for single-family housing, said Lonnie Norris, Granite Ridge vice president of sales.

"We don’t know what the impact may or may not be (on lot sales)," he said of the entrance opening. "It sounds like there would be very little that neighbors can do." 

Winters Road, a concrete road with wider traffic lanes and shoulders than other county roads in rural and suburban areas "was a road built for GM for their use years ago, and they’re now at a point to take advantage of it," Hartman said. The affected stretch intersects the southern end of Lower Huntington Road that leads to Interstate 69 at a sharply angled intersection with a stop sign.

No traffic light is planned, Hartman said, adding that the traffic, even with the increases, doesn’t warrant one. There’s no specific number of cars required, but traffic must be steady for eight hours a day to meet minimum threshold for a light. Current traffic from the neighborhood amounts to a few dozen trips a day.

Peters said dead-ending Dennis Road, a gravel street that connects Winters and Lower Huntington roads, is being discussed to reduce traffic using it as a shortcut to the new entrance. Hartman said he is leaning toward placing the dead end at the Lower Huntington Road end of the street.

Peters added the amount of traffic on Winters may not be as much as residents fear. Neighbors have said there might be 1,500 cars a day on Winters, but he said some of those workers might continue to use the main entrance and internal roads if they are traveling from the south.

Back-ups at the stop sign might be alleviated because most people will turn right from Winters onto Lower Huntington on leaving the plant and there is not much traffic coming from the south that would block left turns onto Winters from Lower Huntington, he said. Hartman said turning lanes on Winters will be repainted.

Peters said the situation is still in flux, noting the possibility of staggered start times at the plant has been raised.

But he agrees residents have little say. "We’d like to mitigate the situation for residents out there. We’re not blinded to their concerns," he said.

Doak said that the lack of input from neighbors is disappointing. GM has been "a wonderful neighbor," she said, and neighbors have appreciated the company’s patrols along the road at the border of its parking lot.

But now, she said, "We kind of feel like they have pushed us aside, like we have no right to say anything. … It doesn’t seem fair."