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Southsiders prevail in halting plan to destroy wetlands

Nearly five dozen attendees at a draft wetland permit public hearing listen to Hoosier Environmental Council water policy director Indra Frank testify Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (Provided Photo/Enrique Saenz/Mirror Indy)

INDIANAPOLIS (MIRROR INDY) — A controversial plan to build a 200-acre retail development along the Indianapolis border with Greenwood on hold after a state agency denied the developer’s permit application.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management denied Indianapolis-based Gershman Partners’ application to destroy a quarter acre of Class III wetlands, categorized as being the highest quality wetlands by state law, in order to build a $174-million development that would include several warehouses and a hotel. 

Mirror Indy first reported how the plan — which also would destroy dozens of acres of other wetlands— drew opposition from many Franklin Township residents due to the effect wetland destruction would have on flooding and wildlife. 

The agency said it denied the permit for multiple reasons, including that the developers failed to demonstrate that there were no reasonable alternatives to destroying the wetlands and that there were plenty of already-built warehouses the company could buy instead of building new ones.

Gershman Partners, which did not immediately respond to Mirror Indy’s request for comment, could appeal the decision by June 12 or submit a new plan.

For now, some Franklin Township residents are cautiously cheering the agency’s decision.

“It is just simply amazing,” said Robin Heldman, who lives next to the proposed development site and enjoys the diverse wildlife. “I’m grateful that IDEM listened and was receptive to what was said at a public hearing. It’s a beautiful demonstration of community unity. I know there’s an opportunity to appeal, but right now I’m on cloud nine.”

Why not buy instead of build?

The development plan, proposed by Gershman and Citimark Management, included the destruction of 45 acres of wetlands in all, but the quarter acre of high quality wetlands appeared to be the sticking point. 

Class III wetlands have unique protections in the state that are not given to any other type of wetland. As a result, developers must apply for a permit to disturb or destroy them. 

Gershman had proposed to purchase roughly $49,000 in mitigation credits, which would pay the state to replant the wetlands somewhere in the Upper White River Service Area, a 2,700 square-mile area stretching across 16 counties. According to the nonprofit Hoosier Environmental Council, there would be “almost no chance” that the replacement would be built in the watershed where the wetlands currently are, the Pleasant Run Creek watershed.

“We’re interested in having conversations with developers about how they can develop and protect these wetlands at the same time,” said Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Sam Carpenter. “I think this opens the door so that we can have those conversations to think about smart development that utilizes those natural resources and doesn’t just pave over them.”

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management also said it based its decision on Gershman Partners’ submission of two sets of plans for the warehouses which differed on the number of warehouses that would be built and the effect they would have on the wetlands.

And, according to IDEM’s permit denial, the agency drew key information it used for its decision from a public hearing held April 9 which the developers did not attend.

Heldman said the developer’s absence from the hearing made her believe they had no intention of altering their plans and is glad the agency denied their application.

“I was elated that the community’s voice was heard,” Heldman said. “I think that the number of people that showed up and expressed concern and legitimate reasoning and facts is exactly what was needed. I think that was pivotal to this decision.”

Asking for a new plan 

The developers have a chance to appeal the decision through the Office of Environmental Adjudication or draw up new plans that avoid affecting state-regulated wetlands. 

Cathy Burton, a member of the Franklin Township Civic League, said her group would oppose the plan until the developer comes up with a way to protect the wetlands on the property.

She said developers sought opinions from her group and other residents when initially seeking to rezone the property but she believed they lost interest in residents’ opinions once that happened. 

“Our trust is broken,” Burton said. 

Mirror Indy reporter Enrique Saenz mainly covers west Indianapolis. Contact him at 317-983-4203 or Follow him on X @heyEnriqueSaenz.