The proposed rezoning of a former medical office building in New Whiteland is now in doubt after a commission gave it an unfavorable recommendation during a unanimous vote Tuesday night.

Sr Mahi Inc., the owner of the building at 340 Tracy Road, petitioned the New Whiteland Plan Commission to rezone the 0.81 acre property from General Business 1 (GB1) to General Business 2 (GB2). The building is currently vacant, said Eric Prime, an attorney representing Sr. Mahi, Inc.

GB1 is designed for neighborhood business uses that are compatible with adjoining residential uses, while GB2 is designed for maximum flexibility of land use to meet the demands of a residential community, said Lee Robbins, town attorney.

New Whiteland residents voiced their concerns about a proposed rezone of this property on Tracy Road during a New Whiteland Plan Commission meeting on Tuesday. SCOTT ROBERSON | DAILY JOURNAL

Tuesday night, the property owner came before the plan commission during its first meeting of 2021 to make its case for the rezone, which is needed because they have had difficulty getting a tenant for the property. The developer is aware that changing the zoning to a larger zoning type can be difficult for plan commissions, so they went through the city’s ordinance to exclude certain uses for the land, Prime said.

If the rezone is approved, there would not be any additional structures added, and the current building would remain on the property, Prime said.

Several plan commission members and about 15 members of the public questioned why the change was needed. Prime told the commission that it is needed to get a broader pool of tenants. A daycare and a compliance office for a trucking company had expressed interest in leasing the property, he said.

No tenants have signed a lease for the property as of the meeting, Prime said.

Dan Bawinkel, who lives in the neighborhood near the property, told the commission that the current zoning matches the neighborhood’s aesthetic, and said he was concerned about how it would impact traffic on Tracy Road — a concern several other residents echoed.

New Whiteland resident Emily Gibson asked the commission under what zoning would daycare centers be allowed. After the commission told her it was would be allowed under GB1, she questioned the need for the rezone.

“If those are people that are showing interest, then what’s the need of making it GB2,” Gibson said. “There would be no need to rezone if you guys are having interest (from) a daycare.”

If GB1 is designed to be a buffer between residential areas and businesses, and it is removed then there is no buffer between the neighborhood and businesses, said resident Dennis Combs. His home is next door to the property, and while he knows he can’t fight change, this is something different.

“Having seen the condition of the property deteriorate and lack of concern for code enforcement, I don’t see any positive to changing the zoning of it,” he said.

Several residents told the commission that the property had become an eyesore for the area over the last year and questioned why the building looked half-painted. The plan commission does not have any say over the color of the building, said John Perrin, a member of the plan commission.

Residents also questioned whether the building was vacant, and several residents — including Combs and his wife — said they have heard and seen activity at the property, especially late at night. Combs and his wife Laura have lived next door to the property for over 30 years, seen bright lights and heard what sounds like a motor coming from the property at night, said Laura Combs.

If there was a business such as an equipment rental place there, and there have been inquires for businesses that are allowed under the current zoning, then why rezone, Gibson asked Prime.

“I’m very much against it,” Gibson said. “To me, I feel like there is a sense of dishonesty and that just puts a bad taste in my mouth … There’s obviously something happening at that property with vehicles coming and going.”

The property had been leased out earlier this year to an excavation company — something not allowed under the current zoning — and once they realized it was not allowed, Sr Mahi, Inc. canceled the lease, Prime said. The property is now vacant, he said.

“If there are still things coming and going, I don’t know what that is,” Prime said.

Resident Joe McMahon said he felt the property owner was going about the whole process the wrong way. The current zoning is supposed to support residents, and if the owner is not taking care of the property, then how can it support residents, he said.

Perrin is concerned that the owner rented the property to a company that is not allowed under the current GB1 zoning. Part of the reason why there are problems at the property, such as the building being half-painted, are because it was left as a mess due to the lease cancellation, he said.

“If you’re going to own property and you’re going to rent it out to somebody, you darn well better do your due diligence and homework and find out what’s allowed to be there,” Perrin said. “There are 68 GB2 (uses) you’re willing to do away with. If you can do away with that many, you can stay GB1.”

Giving a favorable recommendation for the change would go against the town’s zoning ordinance, said commission chairman Matt Gillock.

“In my opinion, it currently is zoned for its more desirable use due to its location (near) residential homes,” said commission member Duane McCauslin.

While the commission gave it an unfavorable recommendation, the New Whiteland Town Council has to vote on whether to approve the proposed rezone while taking the recommendation into account. The council will hear the proposal at its Nov. 5 meeting. There will not be a public hearing, however, the meeting will be open to the public.