ELKHART — Steve Hollenberg and his family have spent 16 years in their home south of Eastwood Elementary, enjoying a rural setting that includes woods to the northwest and a field to the northeast.
The family’s four-bedroom brick ranch includes 4,700 square feet and sits on a 12-acre spread in a cul-de-sac on Brittany Trail.
His property includes a wooded area to the west where Hollenberg planted 600 trees. To the east, beyond the driveway, sits a prairie field that he’s developed.
“We’ve put a lot of love and money and energy into this. We love to garden,” Hollenberg said, adding jokingly, “Some of the trees are my best friends.”
The humor in his voice, though, fades when the topic turns to expansion plans by a nearby company, MOR/ryde International, which is seeking to construct a manufacturing facility directly to the north of his home.
MOR/ryde, which manufactures products for commercial and recreational vehicles, has purchased the land and is seeking to have it rezoned to manufacturing by the Elkhart County Plan Commission.
Hollenberg and other opponents of the plan point out that the expansion would cut off the school from several subdivisions.
They also contend the plan is inconsistent with the county’s land use plan, which encourages manufacturing companies to look at existing property that is already zoned and available.
Opponents also argue that it would likely hurt residential property values in the immediate area. Hollenberg said real estate agents have told him the expansion could reduce his property value by 15 to 20 percent.
“It just doesn’t make sense to us,” said Hollenberg, one of four homeowners whose land is adjacent to the proposed expansion.
Concerns about the expansion go far beyond a handful of homeowners, though.
Residents in the nearby subdivisions of Hunter’s Run, Timberstone and Woodside Estates — all south of the school — are working together to oppose the plan.
If the number of letters already on file with the Elkhart County planning and zoning office are any indication, the company could face plenty of opposition when the rezoning is discussed March 14.
As of Feb. 11, opponents had gathered more than 150 names on a petition.
The concerns of neighboring property owners and parents of Eastwood Elementary students have not fallen on deaf ears.
“I’m not minimizing the fact that the neighbors are opposed to it because it’s an open field, and some of the fears are based on the unknown or what MOR/ryde is going to do there,” said Bob Weaver, an engineer with Anchor Construction and senior project manager for MOR/ryde’s proposed expansion.
MOR/ryde and Anchor Construction met with subdivision residents and representatives from the elementary school to ease some of their worries by explaining the manufacturing company’s vision for the roughly 22-acre property.
MOR/ryde plans to include a landscaped berm with a vinyl-covered fence that would act as a sound and visual screen to the neighbors to the south of the property. The company has not asked for access along C.R. 15, so there would be no increase in traffic to that area. If the rezoning is approved, the company would connect to city water and sewer service.
“As we’re growing and adding jobs to the community, our goal is to be the best neighbor we can be, and I think we have demonstrated that through our other locations,” said Rodney Moore, chief financial officer for MOR/ryde.
MOR/ryde has a history of operating near residential areas, Weaver noted. The company has three plants in Elkhart County, including the site of the proposed expansion on Cooper Drive and two in the city of Elkhart on Moyer Avenue and Grant Street. The Elkhart City Council approved a rezoning in January for MOR/ryde to expand its Moyer Avenue location by 30,000 square feet.
“When they were looking at expansion, they didn’t want to keep creating additional locations,” Weaver explained. “They would like to expand where they can in existing locations.”
MOR/ryde plans to add more jobs if the Cooper Drive expansion is approved, Weaver said.
“They directly employ 450 people, but then of course they have numerous subcontractors and businesses that supply materials and parts to them,” he said. “If you do the math, they probably impact as many as 800 to 1,200 jobs in some way, shape or form tied to those 450 jobs at the company.”
Elkhart Community Schools has not taken an official position on the rezoning, but the Eastwood school community — staff, teachers and parents — have expressed strong concerns about the plan, said Doug Hasler, executive director of support services for the school district.
MOR/ryde’s expansion plan is part of a scenario that worries school officials who anticipate land to the north to be developed for manufacturing or commercial uses. An industrial park already exists to the west.
“We would be on an island, surrounded entirely by manufacturing properties,” Hasler said.
He said the school has talked with representatives of MOR/ryde and that some alternatives are being considered but declined to offer details.
“Those discussions are ongoing,” Hasler said.
Tanzie Nielsen, president of the Eastwood Elementary Parent Teacher Association, also opposes the plan. She has two children who attend the school. The PTA has not taken a stand on the issue, but Nielsen’s used her contacts to reach out to parents to express her concerns about MOR/ryde’s plans. She said she may seek a vote by the PTA next week.
“To put an industrial manufacturing facility in between the neighborhood school and the neighborhoods, to me, is illogical,” Nielsen said.