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Frustrations at Rustic River Outfitters

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INSIDE: Rustic River Outfitters renovated an old sawmill property, which includes a sales floor, cafe, event space and space for renting kayaks and canoes.
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BEFORE: Before Rustic River Outfitters was built, the property was an old saw mill.
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AFTER: The new building used old parts of the pre-existing sawmill to create the current structure.
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AFTER: The new building used old parts of the pre-existing sawmill to create the current structure.
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Smith said this 748 square foot breezeway has an allowed occupancy load of 50 people.

BY HEATHER COX - hcox@h-ponline.com

When Huntington County resident Kevin Smith wanted to buy a piece of property in Mt. Etna to give the community an outlet for outdoor activities, he didn’t know that the process of opening his business would take more than two years.

In March 2016, Smith placed a down payment on the Ole Sawmill which he was purchasing from Paul and Deborah Abbott, to create what is now known as Rustic River Outfitters (RRO).

Shortly after placing this payment, Smith said he found that the property was zoned as government property on Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, rather than being zoned as commercial. Since the property had been a sawmill for more than 100 years prior, Smith said he knew that it should have been zoned as commercial property.

Upon asking the county’s Department of Community Development (DCD) to verify that it was zoned incorrectly on GIS, DCD told him they wanted it to be rezoned. From there, Smith said the Abbotts elected to go forward with a rezoning process though they had maps proving that it was shown incorrectly on GIS.

Four months and thousands of dollars later, Smith said the Abbotts had successfully gotten it rezoned. That was not the last obstacle the Smiths would run into, though.

According to a timeline of the process that Smith has documented which starts at the first down payment in 2016 and goes through February 2018, they started cleaning up the property in August 2016. It goes on to show that in April of 2017, the DCD visited the property, walked through the buildings and took pictures without first notifying Smith’s company which owns the property, Builders Gallery Inc., that they would be doing so.

The DCD then informed them that they were not allowed to build onto the existing building without a permit, though Smith noted that they were not adding on, they were just repairing.

Shortly after this occurred, Smith noted that they visited the DCD to explain they were not adding on to the building but were restoring what already existed. They were then told about permits they needed for electrical and plumbing work.

From there, Smith noted that they had been told they didn’t need permits for awnings just to be told later that they did need state approval. Later on, after being told they also needed a change of use, Smith said they found tax forms showing that the property was being taxed as commercial and shouldn’t have needed rezoned at the very beginning, after all.

Among those issues, Smith has shown that he was approved by the state in December of 2017, but the DCD is unsure that his business is classified correctly. The Executive Director of DCD, Mandy Woods, has said though the property is classified as a “B,” for business, DCD thinks it should be classified as an “A,” for assembly (similar to a restaurant or event center), due to the type of business he plans to run.

Additionally, Smith said when speaking with the state, he was told he could have up to 50 people just in the breezeway, which is a section that splits the retail store, but could have more than that outside and in other areas of the store, if he wanted.

“That’s just in the breezeway, that’s 748 (square) feet, that’s allowed up to 50 people … outside doesn’t matter, doesn’t have a limit ... Class B can have a group of people come in as long as it doesn’t exceed the space. And it’s at 50 and that’s what the state agrees with,” Smith explained.

When the DCD and the state both got involved, Smith said the state actually thought the issue was that Smith wanted more than 50 people in the building. On the contrary, Smith said adding more than 50 people would be uncomfortable and would lose the home-like atmosphere he wants to create.

“You start packing people in here it’s no fun. I don’t wanna have 150 people in this building for events. How fun would that be? But outdoors, when it’s an outdoors thing and you put corn hole and things out here and all that stuff to play, it’s fun,” he explained.

As far as safety is concerned, Smith said the facility is safe. For example, he said he wasn’t required to add things like lighted exit signs or other lights above doors, but he has. He has also added and replaced all of the building’s wiring early on in the process.

Smith said the state has approved everything he has asked to do, and he would prefer to work with the state on any future projects instead of the county’s local DCD, since he said the state has been easier to work with.

“If I go to do something different (with) these other buildings ... I would go to the state,” Smith said. “I would go to the state first this time because the state is easier to work with than the local government. They have rules and you follow the rules and you get what you need. Huntington’s rules constantly change.”

As of now, RRO is on its second temporary permit. The business was given a temporary permit for the month of September in hopes that the DCD would hear back from the state to discuss the conflicts further, but when they did not get confirmation from the state, they issued another temporary permit for the month of October.

During a recent county commissioners meeting, President Larry Buzzard said they would issue a permanent permit by the end of the month if they have not had a discussion with the state.

With a temporary permit, Smith said he can do everything he has planned and wanted to do with his business. However, he is unable to book any future events since his permit currently only goes to the end of October, which he said in the recent commissioners meeting has put his business behind financially.

All in all, Smith said the entire process has been frustrating. He also said he has other plans for the area, including the possibility of a microbrewery that is interested in investing in the community, but now he is unsure if he wants to attempt another business in Huntington County.

“I can go to Wabash County, and they welcome you. They say ‘what can we do to help you come to our community?’ Huntington County it’s ‘what can you do for us?’ … I sunk a ton of money into this place. My neighbors are all into this place, interested in it, love that it’s been done. It’s helped their property values. We mow all these lots down here and keep all this stuff cleaned up down here. Mt. Etna is slowly forming into a community again instead of just an eyesore, and 90 percent of it is because of me and my family.”

Smith also noted that other businesses in the area have faced conflicts and issues with the DCD, one of which did end up moving to Wabash County.

He said he has been trying to do something good for the community and should’ve been fully open more than a year ago. He added that facing so much frustration on top of his full-time job and family has at times made him want to shut the doors and get away from all of it.

But even after threatening to sell it to get away from the DCD obstacles, Smith is still working to pull his business together and pursue business development in Mt. Etna.