CROWN POINT — Lake County's central belt is becoming home this year for more than a thousand new households.
Cedar Lake granted 181 work permits for housing starts in the first 11 months. Crown Point approved 243, Dyer 32, Lowell 94, Schererville 61, Winfield 52.
St. John recorded the most dramatic rise of all — 310 housing starts in a community of just more than 17,000 residents.
Cedar Lake Town Council President Randy Niemeyer credit this expansion of suburban housing stock to a proven interest in the area's proximity to Chicago, affordable land, quality schools and "small town feel."
It also places responsibility on local officials to provide government services.
"A lot of the planning for our infrastructure expansion has been going on for the last three years and we are starting to see the fruits of that labor," Niemeyer said.
Outside these suburbs is 230 square miles of rural unincorporated countryside supervised by the Lake County Board of Commissioners. It spends about $16 million annually keeping stormwater out of backyards and between the banks of hundreds of miles of drainage ditches and commuters moving across Lake County on highways and bridges.
County planners only approved 92 housing starts this year, but that pleased Lake County Planning Director Ned Kovachevich.
"We want to avoid urban sprawl in the unincorporated areas by promoting development inside cities and towns where it is supposed to occur. We want to preserve farmlands by making it less attractive for farmers to sell their property for other uses," he said.
That philosophy was written into Lake County's comprehensive land use plan, which the County Council enacted Sept. 11 after months of public hearings.
"I thought the process went well and set up the framework for future development," said Lake County Commissioner Jerry Tippy, R-Schererville, who asked for the first updating of the plan in 21 years.
"While we have a strong real estate market right here, we really are trying to limit development, on septic systems, to minor subdivision of five lots or less in the unincorporated area," Kovachevich said.
Individual home septic tanks and drainage fields reduce sewage contamination of local groundwater but can fail over time if not properly maintained and require residential lots of an acre or more to be effective.
He said large developers prefer municipal sewage and water utility lines that permit higher and more profitable concentrations of houses per acre.
Kovachevich added much of the county between Lowell and the Kankakee River to the south is protected from intensive development by wetlands zoned by the county as flood hazard zones.
"You cannot place a septic system at or below the 100-year flood mark so that area is really protected from any type of large development," he said.
Wetlands also make it difficult to construct high traffic roads — that come with development — "without building a lot of bridges. Then the question becomes whether it would be cost effective," Kovachevich said.
Tippy said the plan ignores the proposed Illiana Expressway, a 47-mile toll road that would slice across farmland land north of Lowell to link Interstate 65 and Interstate 55 in Illinois' Will County.
It was proposed eight years ago, by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and tabled by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner four years ago. Illinois Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker, who defeated Rauner this fall, has called for more highway development. Indiana state officials recently said they stand ready to discuss the Illiana if Pritzker does.
Nevertheless, Tippy said construction is unlikely during the 20-year timeline of Lake County's plan.
"Illinois can't do projects they cannot pay for," he said.
Tippy added, "You cannot stop growth. So we need to have regulations and guidelines in place to manage that growth. We are going to start in January updating our zoning ordinance, which is 60 years old."
Kovachevich said there is no intention to make wholesale changes in current zoning designations, but they want to reword zoning regulations.
"The developers who want an industrial park at I-65 and Ind. 2 wanted to do some things that weren't really permitted under our (current) zoning ordinance. So, we would create a commercial planned unit development where developers can create their own regulations, which are ultimately approved by the County Council."
"These projects and our new contract with the Lake County Economic Alliance is part of a bigger plan," Tippy added.
Karen Lauerman, president and CEO of Lake County Indiana Economic Alliance, said the commissioners' planning and zoning initiatives have the benefit of assuring a "unified, bipartisan and welcoming environment for businesses looking to come into Lake County."
"Our 'Grass is Greener' campaign is attracting the residential side, but also tipping people off to the great business environment and tax climate we have in Indiana," she said.
"We are positioning the county and all of our communities for prosperity."