The city’s slow response to pop-up truck stops has residents angry
The one-acre plot of land on English Avenue, just off I-465 on the southeast side of Indianapolis, was a wooded oasis next to Lick Creek.
A little more than a year ago, the property was cleared of trees and trees overnight, said Harold and Mardina McPhillips, who live on a 2-1/2-acre property at the end of the street. Suddenly, a parking lot appeared there.
“She showed up one day,” Mardina McPhillips said.
There was no sign telling people what type of business the parking lot was for, or if it was a business at all. McPhillips, who works nights, said she often sees trucks going in and out of the “murky” area on their way home in the early morning hours.
City records show the parking lot was built illegally. An IndyStar investigation revealed those trucks weren’t supposed to be there. The site, which is located just a few hundred meters from the nearest house and down the street from an apartment complex, is not intended for parking or storage of heavy commercial vehicles.
The city first inspected the site last year after receiving a citizen complaint through the Mayor’s Action Center and later issued a $430 fine. Months passed, but the violations were never addressed and the fine was never paid, city records show.
In June, the city filed a lawsuit accusing the property owner of illegally storing commercial vehicles on the site and violating rules requiring such parking lots to be paved and fenced.
The English Avenue area is one example of the increasing inconvenience some Indianapolis residents are experiencing. Similar truck facilities, many of which appear to have been haphazardly built and incorrectly located, appear in a number of largely blue-collar neighborhoods, especially on the south and southeast sides.
Many were cited for various zoning violations, including storing unwanted cars and trailers, and building without permits.
But these citations help only a few disaffected residents.
In some cases, violations remain unchecked for months, frustrating neighborhood groups that see the lots as a growing problem in their communities. Many are huge, unhealthy areas that residents fear will depress property values, cause already neglected streets to collapse under the weight of heavy vehicles, pollute nearby streams and destroy wildlife habitat.
Some also worry that unsafe truck stops could be a magnet for other illegal activities, although no crimes were reported at the locations examined by IndyStar.
“It’s almost like cancer,” said Gary Blackwell, a member of the Warren Township Development Association who has lived in the area for 40 years. “It must be stopped before it continues to spread.”
The persistent violations that lead city officials to sue the owners are the exception, not the rule. The majority of zoning disputes — more than 80% — property owners resolve issues voluntarily, said Curt Christian, spokesman for the Department of Business and Neighborhood Services. Only about 10% to 15% turn into lawsuits, like the one the city filed over the English Avenue site.
“All zoning violation cases have a notification process, citations, and court action for those who do not voluntarily comply,” Christian said, adding that property owners can also request rezoning or seek permission to build on sites that would violate the codes. . “This process adds time, but also includes an opportunity for the public to voice concerns or object at the Zoning Board of Appeals and other associated meetings.”
Biak Za Lian, the owner of the plot of land on English Avenue, said he bought the land in 2020 to build a parking lot for his small trucking company with 13 drivers. He said he initially thought parking trucks there was legal because the site is zoned a commercial property, and he didn’t think it would be an issue with neighbors.
He was half right. Truck parking is permitted on some commercial and industrial sites, but the English Avenue property is zoned for office space. Lian, a Burmese immigrant who learned English after coming to the United States in 2007, said he is new to trucking and still learning the basics of the business.
“I try to do things right,” he said.
The trend among many of these truck stops is to build first — and ask for permission later, said Cathy Burton, president of the Alliance of Neighborhood Associations of Marion County. This hampers a system that already moves too slowly to force bad actors to follow the rules, she said.
“Even if they are cited for illegal zoning activity, if they choose not to comply, it will take months and months, sometimes years, to appear in court so they can be ordered to stop,” Burton said.
At the same time, she added, “the concerns are that the neighbors are kind of hanging out there.”
Logistics is a major industry in Indiana due to its location and easy access to a network of major highways. The industry has boomed during the pandemic as demand for trucks to deliver goods has surged during the pandemic.
This created a dilemma for some truck drivers passing through Indianapolis. Small independent trucking companies can’t afford parking fees at large industrial facilities and need cheaper parking spaces in the city, said Joe Calderon, an Indianapolis attorney who handles land use and zoning issues.
While some property owners were cited for building illegally on these lots, city records also show that many others failed to follow site plans approved by zoning officials in exchange for being allowed to build on sites that would violate zoning laws.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Eddie Hager, vice president of the Far Southeast Neighborhood Association. “The city has allowed corporations to destroy the environment, roads and neighborhoods.”
Calderon, who represents people and businesses accused of zoning violations, acknowledges that frustration. But he said the zoning process, although slow, allows for due process. He noted that just because there is a citation does not always mean there is a violation.
“Obviously there are people who are just doing what they want,” he added. “And some people are innocent. They don’t know any better, and they’re trying to make things right.”
Three miles east of the English Avenue property, on South Post Road next to the Indianapolis World Sports Park, is a larger parking lot that has been repurposed as an industrial site and now houses dozens of pickup trucks.
The city said it gave the owner permission to develop the property into a commercial truck parking lot, but the site is now used to store inoperable vehicles. Earlier this year, the city issued a $430 fine, which has yet to be paid.
One morning, trash bags, rusty cars and trailers were strewn around an unpaved lot overgrown with weeds.
Jay Singh, owner of Yodha Logistics, a Sacramento, California-based company that owns the South Post Road property, said he wasn’t aware of the fine until an IndyStar reporter asked about it. He acknowledged that some drivers who pay to park their trucks in the lot may leave unregistered cars there.
“We will try to evict them as soon as possible. We will give them notices and ask them to remove them,” he said. “Some of these guys, they don’t understand.”
Singh said he plans to add security guards to the site next month.
Vishavdeep Singh Cheema, who owns a small trucking company, bought a five-acre plot of land at Troy Street and South Arlington more than a year ago and is seeking to rezone it to park his trucks. The property, which is now overgrown with weeds and trailers, was also cited for violations.
Cheema said he is working to get the trailers off the property, but he doesn’t think they’re a problem.
“I don’t think he’s causing trouble for anyone around him,” Cheema said, adding that there are other establishments with trucks and trailers in the neighborhood, and he’s simply trying to make a living.
Neighborhood group leaders say they have nothing against the trucking industry or drivers. They just want landlords to follow the rules.
“God bless the truck drivers, we need them,” said Ron Phillips, president of the Warren Township Development Association. “It’s a parking problem.”
Calls for better enforcement
Hager, vice president of the Far Southeast Neighborhood Association, began paying attention to problems with truck parking facilities a few years ago after noticing development in the south suburbs of Beech Grove, where there are at least four parking lots within the I-465 loop. IndyStar found that three of them were cited for violations.
Hager said specific regulations and stronger enforcement are needed to adequately address truck parking. For example, the city should have the ability to issue cease-and-desist orders to force parking lot owners to adhere to zoning regulations and fix problems immediately, Hager said.
But targeting semi-truck parking lots could be difficult because the city risks legal exposure by calling out a particular industry, said City Councilman Michael Paul Hart, whose district includes the town of Warren.
Earlier this year, the city passed an ordinance limiting the size of commercial parking lots to two acres. It also prohibits trucks from being parked within 500 feet of homes, hospitals, parks, schools, churches and areas of historical significance.
Hart said the ordinance is a start, but it does not fully address residents’ concerns.
“The problem is when I talked to the corporate counsel’s office, we couldn’t specifically mention truck parking. They were concerned about a lawsuit against the city,” Hart said. “That’s why we look at all commercial parking as a whole.”
The McPhillips have lived on English Avenue for 45 years. They usually hear about new developments in the neighborhood, like when a company built a nearby paintball field a few years ago. They receive notices, and public hearings are held.
None of that happened with the large parking lot located a few hundred feet from their modest red brick home. Mardina McPhillips said the neighbors should have been notified.
Two months after the city sued the owner over problems with the site — and more than a year since it issued its first notice of violation — it’s still ugly. Garbage litters the area, which remains unpaved and unfenced. Detached trucks and trailers sit among the overgrown grasses. There is a large oil container in one corner next to a propane tank and a pile of used tires.
Contact IndyStar reporter Kristen Phillips at (317) 444-3026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.