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COLUMN

Lengthy traffic dispute appears set for happy ending, in a 'roundabout' way

Couple didn't like plan near its property, so they paid to design and study a new one

Saturday, March 23, 2013 - 7:37 am

Before Chris and Molly Pelkington bought their 60-acre homestead at the northeast corner of Union Chapel Road and Interstate 69 14 years ago, they made sure to ask whether any road improvements were planned that might increase traffic or lower their property values.

Not to worry, transportation officials assured them: The next interchange would be built at Hursh Road 1.5 miles to the north – in another 30 years or so.

But that all changed three years ago when the move of Parkview Hospital's main campus from Randallia Drive to Dupont Road created the need for a “back door” to the $536 million facility and induced the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to begin work on an interchange at Union Chapel instead, sparking a legal battle that encompassed everything from private property rights and wealth to public safety and economic development.

In the end, everyone involved may benefit. But it didn't always look that way.

That's because INDOT's original design called for the construction of a “non-mountable” barrier in the middle of Union Chapel Road stretching 1,000 feet east of the new interchange – a feature that might have improved traffic flow and safety but would have created limited “right in, right out” access to the Pelkingtons' property.

And that's a problem when you not only operate a concrete business but also have nine children living at home, own eight cars and make about 40 trips every day. It's perhaps an even bigger problem when you begin thinking about moving to get away from the unexpected hubbub – and realize your property's development value is potentially diminished by the proposed lack of full access to it.

So the Pelkingtons did what any red-blooded Americans would do when the state tried to buy seven acres needed for the interchange's northbound off ramp: They went to court, claiming the design constituted an illegal “taking” of their property without just compensation.

“We didn't want to delay the (interchange), but the only way out of the box was to come up with our own design for access,” said Tom Niezer, one of Fort Wayne's most influential land-use lawyers. So the Pelkingtons paid about $35,000 to design a roundabout on Union Chapel several hundred feet east of the new interchange near the entrance to their property and Parkview Plaza Drive, which leads to the hospital campus.

“But then they said, 'There's no traffic study,' ” Niezer added. So the Pelkingtons and Parkview split the cost of a $10,000 review that ultimately convinced state and local officials that another roundabout between the one at the interchange and one planned at Union Chapel and Diebold roads would not impede or jeopardize motorists.

Just one problem: Government officials may have said it would be OK to build the additional roundabout, but they never offered to pay for it. So if the Pelkingtons and Parkview want it – and it appears they do – they'll have to provide the land and the $1.8 million or so needed for construction.

Negotiations are ongoing, but finances should not be a major problem. The Pelkingtons in January settled their lawsuit for $326,800, their land has plenty of development potential and Molly's father is John Tippmann Sr., a prominent local businessman. Parkview, meanwhile, has already paid $14 million toward the cost of the I-69 interchange and improvements to Diebold. What's another few hundred thousand dollars?

In the meantime, Niezer said, INDOT will shorten the barrier so the Pelkingtons have access to their driveway from either direction.

And so, just maybe, everybody really will live happily ever after. The Pelkingtons and Parkview get better access to their property, the family may get a higher price for its land, which may be more attractive to businesses that would pay taxes and create jobs, and the public gets improved roads and economic development at no public expense.

Still, Niezer raises a key point: If state and local officials are as serious about creating jobs as officials claim it is, why design a project that could limit development near a potentially lucrative Interstate interchange?

“But what truly is 'economic development?' ” asked Dan Avery, executive director of the Northeastern Indiana Regional Coordinating Council, a transportation planning agency. Avery has no problem with the proposed roundabout but also defends the original design, arguing that safe, well-functioning roads are also conducive to job growth.

Would the likely outcome have been different had not Parkview and a politically savvy and affluent family not been involved? Quite possibly. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take happy endings where we find them.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.