For decades, rules governing the Country Squire Lakes neighborhood near North Vernon were not taken seriously, past and current Jennings County officials have said.

But things began to change last year when the neighborhood’s 4,000-lot community association reorganized and hired Mary Hoevener as compliance manager.

She was given the responsibility of enforcing written policies and covenants, including:

Carrying out property improvements in maintenance of public areas.

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Ensuring tenants and landlords did the same on private properties.

Taking steps to collect association dues.

By January, the three largest landlords were almost caught up in paying long-overdue association fees. But others, including tenants who considered the private community as a great place to hide from the law, may not have realized that the atmosphere at Country Squire Lakes was changing, Hoevener said.

A wake-up call came Jan. 28 when the three Jennings County Commissioners voted unanimously to hand over their jurisdiction of 1,100 foreclosed lots, effective May 29, to court-appointed receiver Mike Miller, who is acting on behalf of the community association.

“Our goal is simple,” Miller said. “To create clean and safe living.”

Targeting criminal activity

Moments after the vote, North Vernon attorney Jack Gay, who is working with Miller to improve the subdivision, predicted thieves and drug dealers would soon be leaving the subdivision “like rats from a sinking ship,” he said.Over the past few months, several residents have indeed moved out of the community, just west of State Road 7 in Geneva Township, Hoevener said. “Everyone is starting to take us very seriously now,” said Hoevener, who had previously worked in a clerical position with the Jennings County Area Plan Commission.

The departure of some residents coincided with conversion of a former restaurant into an unofficial police substation, Gay said.

While law enforcement officers were once a rare sight, two Jennings County Sheriff’s deputies now spend most of their on-duty time at Country Squire Lakes, assisted by troopers from the Indiana State Police, Hoevener said.

Multiple, ongoing drug investigations were a part of everyday life there, Jennings County Sheriff Gary Driver said.

Raising property values

Although a small number of residents continue to resist the recent changes, most have been supportive of steps being taken to raise property values, Gay said.“I think they realize that, as it is, Country Squire Lakes is a drain on the well-being on Jennings County,” Gay said.There’s plenty of evidence to support that conclusion, including:

About half of all daily calls answered last year by the Jennings County Sheriff’s Department were to Country Squire Lakes.

Property foreclosures there have strained the finances of Jennings County government.

The majority of land-use complaints received at the Jennings County Area Planning office stem from the neighborhood.

Hoevener said she knows about the land-use complaints first-hand from working in the planning office.

As of early March, crews had already cleared about 19 lots that Miller, a businessman and former three-term Circuit Court Judge, has controlled since last April, Gay said.

But there are still burned-out trailers, long rows of garbage lining driveways and even a few interiors that look like they were hit during a bombing raid.

“The big cleanup won’t start until June,” Gay said, referring to foreclosed properties among the 1,100 about to be turned over to the receiver.

Working with both Gay and attorney Larry Greathouse, Miller has already announced intentions to invest at least $150,000 into cleanup efforts this year, Gay said.

Those efforts will remain largely centered on removing abandoned and older mobile homes, campers, utility sheds and garbage from about 110 properties, most of which were originally sold as camping sites, Miller said.

In order to encourage long-term investment, future buyers will be required to purchase two to three of the small camping sites. Miller said.

“At their current size, these lots are almost useless,” Miller said.

If someone wants to bring in a mobile home, it will have to meet age and size regulations as well as have a shingled roof and siding, Miller said.

Biggest priorities

Starting next year, additional efforts will be undertaken to enforce more detailed rules, Miller said.In regard to other endeavors, Hoevener said road repairs, as well as ensuring proper ice and snow removal, will remain an immediate priority at Country Squire Lakes.“We’ve been patching potholes you could lose your car in,” said Hoevener, who added that extensive progress has already been made in lake maintenance and dam repairs.

Her staff is also working with county health officials to install sewage and water service vital for maintaining public health to those without it, she said.

What has been impressed upon both Gay and Hoevener more than anything else is that many responsible residents have seen their property values decline sharply solely because of the negligence and irresponsibility of others.

In 2003, the assessed value of Country Squire Lakes was $54 million, Gay said. By the end of 2015, it dropped to less than $20 million, he said.

“There’s some really beautiful homes that are nicely kept out there,” Gay said. “But then there are others that have piles of garbage right out the front door.”

Hoevener said major problems still need to be addressed.

But she expressed confidence that property values will begin to rise in just a few years as Country Squire Lakes is transformed into a beautiful and affordable residential neighborhood.

Evolution of Country Squire Lakes

Originally founded in 1973 as a seasonal recreational facility, Country Squire Lakes eventually evolved into a year-round gated community.

But since the 1980s, residents have accused the community’s neighborhood association of mismanagement.

In 2006, some residents petitioned to have the subdivision incorporated as a town, claiming the association mismanaged money, failed to properly maintain properties or provide enough security. However, the petition was denied by the Jennings County Commissioners.

That same year, Florida developer Tony Bommert purchased 590 of the neighborhood’s 4,000 lots. But within months, those lots were abandoned after Bommert ran into financial trouble following a hurricane that destroyed many of his oceanfront properties, North Vernon attorney John Gay said.

With fewer owners, there was less cash from dues flowing to the association, which translated into less maintenance. Lawsuits were filed that claimed that since the association wasn’t properly maintaining properties, residents should not have to pay dues and assessments. However, the judges ruled the residents still had to pay their dues.

As the 2008 recession began to grip Jennings County over the next few years, property values began to plummet. At the same time, reports of crime and lawlessness in the subdivision began to rise.

But on July 1, 2013, both county and state police officers were given jurisdiction to patrol three main subdivision thoroughfares. The presence of law enforcement has steadily increase since that time.

What's next?

Jurisdiction of 1,100 foreclosed lots at Country Squire Lakes will be officially turned over to court-appointed receiver Mike Miller on May 29.

In mid to late June, the cleanup of about 110 abandoned lots will begin, said Miller, who is acting on behalf of a new homeowners association.

Starting in 2017, additional efforts will be undertaken to enforce more detailed rules and covenants with the goal of regaining a reputation for CSL as “a clean and safe place to live,” Miller said.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.