JEFFERSONVILLE — A proposal to build a permanent apartment complex for the homeless and disabled at the site of the Jeffersonville Optimist Club is back to square one with zoning as the core issue.

The Jeffersonville Plan Commission voted 6-1 Tuesday, with Dustin White dissenting, to begin the process to rezone the property near Louise Street and Optimist Avenue off Springdale Drive back to single-family residential in a process that has dragged on for two months, with residents of the area caught in the crosshairs.

The plan commission at a previous meeting had forwarded a favorable recommendation to the city council — which the city council accepted April 1 — to rezone the property to multi-family to allow for the 45-unit supportive housing complex being proposed by Indianapolis-based BWI Investments.

But Mayor Mike Moore on May 6 held a news conference with neighborhood residents to voice opposition to the project and to call for the property to be rezoned back to its original single-family designation — an action that has mired the project, dubbed Mariposa Springs, in controversy.

At issue is residents alleging they were not properly informed of BWI's plans — public opposition led BWI to withdraw its request last fall for the same project at 400 Ewing Lane — and that they have been misled about BWI's intentions for the project at 61 Louise Street. An overwhelming majority of the 70 or so people in the overflow crowd at Tuesday's meeting in the city council chambers said Mariposa Springs is not welcome in their neighborhood.

"There was intentional misrepresentation. My understanding is it's not going to be run right," said Dan Pierson, who lives on Louise Street. "There will be no accountability for anyone who wants to come into the complex ... To bring something like that into a small community and put 45 units like that with no accountability, that is wrong. That is definitely wrong."

The issue, said Larry Hobbs, president and CEO of BWI, who spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, is not about zoning, but about fear. Hobbs noted that even if the area is zoned as single-family residential, BWI could build several small houses on the property instead of an apartment complex.

"We're dealing with an issue of fear," said Hobbs, alluding to neighbors worrying about a decrease in property values and residents of the complex possibly creating havoc. "We are here simply again because of fear. The fear is just not based on proper facts ... This is not a multi-family versus single-family issue. Because if it is let's talk to the community and get input ... I guarantee you that the fear will still be there. People don't want folks that are homeless and with disabilities in their backyard."

That didn't sit well with residents, who took Hobbs's comments to mean they were uncaring.

"We're not heartless," said Alverta Turner, who lives on Sharon Drive and cares for a daughter with a mental disability. "You don't put it in a residential neighborhood ... Don't say we're heartless and we don't understand. I totally understand."

Hobbs took to the microphone later to address those concerns.

"My words were it's important for this project to be in a caring community," he said. "It doesn't mean that you don't care."

The back-and-forth underscored the emotion that bubbled to the surface during Tuesday's meeting, which also became weighed down by bureaucratic wrangling. John Kraft, a lawyer representing BWI, told the commission that it should not be hearing the petition to begin the rezoning process, which was brought forward by Jeffersonville planning Director Nathan Pruitt, because it was instigated by Moore.

Kraft called it "the magic of politics" that the plan commission was even reconsidering the rezoning.

"It's merely an attempt by the mayor to rezone a piece of property he couldn't do on his own jurisdictionally," Kraft said.

Moore took to the podium twice during the public comment period, urging the commission to rezone the property due to residents' concerns and that the project does not fit into the city's 10th Street strategic plan.

"It's very frustrating for me that at a time when I love to see all the new growth and the planning that we're doing, to see somebody try and slip something in ... but that's why we're here today," he said. "We're actually about to cut the ribbon on a $20 million redevelopment project on 10th Street that is going to bring new life into this city, and it's going to come in different forms. The property where the Optimist Club sits is, according to the experts, perfect for single-family residential."

How nearby residents were informed also was a point of contention. Kraft said 57 letters were sent to nearby residents about the intention to rezone the property, which BWI has under contract, but has not closed on, but the majority of residents in attendance Tuesday said they received no such notice.

Also, some plan commission members said they were misinformed about BWI's plans prior to making their original vote on the rezoning. The company hired a third-party vendor to canvass residents, the results of which have not been made public.

"I find that to be errant information," said Ron Ellis, who is also a city councilman, adding that the survey company told him that no residents opposed the project.

Dustin White, however, who also is a councilman, said he fully understood what he was voting on when he voted in favor of the rezoning at the council's April 1 meeting — which is why he was against Tuesday's plan commission proposal.

"I voted with full understanding of what it was," White said, "and what it is."

The plan commission will take up the rezoning at its June 25 meeting at 6 p.m. The city council has the final say on the project.

Jason Thomas is an assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Contact him via email at jason.thomas@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2127. Follow him on Twitter: @ScoopThomas.

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