As roads go, the gravel-topped, single-lane, dead-end, tree-lined Richey Lane in northern Allen County is beautiful if not very functional. But its residents seem to like it that way – along with the pastoral isolation the road both reflects and preserves.
But that is about to change, reopening four-year-old wounds linked to one of the county's most controversial developments and posing once again that age-old question: Where do developers' property rights end and their duty to the environment, their neighbors and the public begin?
The Canyon Cliffs project was controversial from the moment Mike and Jeff Thomas first proposed it back in 2008, when nearby residents and environments went to court hoping to prevent the construction of 28 expensive homes on 139 partially wooded acres near Cedar Creek, one of just three scenic and recreational rivers in Indiana. The lawsuit ultimately failed, several homes have been built and all seemed quiet if not forgotten.
Until now, that is.
Hoping to boost the sale of five “out lots” along Richey not included in the original project, the owners of Canyon Cliffs are moving ahead with plans attorney Tom Niezer said were in place from the start: The land's owner, Coldwater Estates LLC, will remove enough trees from its side of the road to allow the County Highway Department to add another lane, pavement and a turn-around feature.
But to Richey residents – many of whom were original Canyon Cliffs opponents – that amounts to spending public dollars for private profit to correct a problem that does not yet exist.
“Obviously there is no immediate need (for the improvements),” resident Dennis Baker told the County Commissioners Friday, pointing out that just five homes are on Richey, none built since 1987. To replace trees with pavement before lots are sold and traffic increases would simply “put citizens in their place,” he added.
Nonsense, Niezer said: The developers ceded about 40 feet of right-of-way along the west side of Richey as the county requested, and are paying to remove the trees and prepare the land for widening. “It's not (the neighbors') land. They just want to block the project. This is the way development has worked in our county for years.”
He's right, but the issues are not quite so clear cut (pun intended) as they were four years ago when I supported Canyon Cliffs precisely because it was indeed the developers' land, and developed in compliance with the law.
As Jeff Thomas pointed out, Richey is a public road, maintained by and accessible to the taxpayers – of which he is one. “We wouldn't even be talking about this if it was a private road; I'm not asking to do anything any other property owner couldn't do,” he said. In “metes-and-bounds” developments such as this, owners are routinely allowed driveways onto county roads. And as Niezer said, developers routinely add or improve roads before lots are sold – not afterward. Because it is so narrow and relatively inaccessible to safety vehicles, Richey “is a disaster waiting to happen,” Thomas said.
But to Larry Yoder, whose family owns a 200-acre farm at the end of the lane, Richey is “a unique, idyllic thoroughfare, and they're going to make it look like any other place.” Yoder, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against Canyon Cliffs, continues to believe the development is incompatible with the very nature from which it seeks to profit. “They need to look at the big picture. There's a moral responsibility here. They're not using a resource to its best advantage,” he said.
County officials seem to be making the best of a bad situation. Instead of widening the 12-foot road to the usual 18 feet, the “new” Richey will be just 16 feet across, Highway Director Bill Hartman said.
Ironically, Canyon Cliff's opponents may have only themselves to blame for some of their discomfort. Had they not opposed the original plan to develop the project using the then-new “minor plat” guidelines, the Richey Lane lots might have been linked to the neighborhood's street system that empties onto Coldwater Road, perhaps resulting in one entrance onto Richey instead of five.
But the fact remains that, for now, the county is in the unusual position of modernizing an old-fashioned but scenic byway against the wishes of the people who live there, for the benefit of developers and neighbors who may or may not materialize any time soon.
Those new homes and residents will eventually generate far more taxes than the as-yet-unknown cost of improving the road, so County Commissioner Nelson Peters is probably right when he concludes that, overall, the changes will be for “the greater good.”
But at some level, it's still too bad.