Champion racecar driver Tony Stewart has received permission to open a for-profit hunting and fishing operation on his 414-acre ranch in western Bartholomew County.
The Columbus native, who recently retired after an 18-year career as a NASCAR driver, won over members of the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals, which voted unanimously to give him a conditional-use permit allowing the activity.
Reaction to the proposal wasn’t unanimous with Stewart’s neighbors, however.
“Are you prepared to put my life, my childrens’ lives, my grandchildrens’ lives at risk for someone’s pleasure?” asked Rachel Morris, who resides south of Stewart’s estate in Harrison Township.
While Morris was among about a half-dozen concerned neighbors who attended Monday’s meeting, only she and Nelson Hand addressed the board during a 40-minute hearing.
Both said they believed stray rifle bullets from controlled hunts could cross County Road 225S onto their respective properties and either injure or kill someone.
“There could be blood on your hands,” Hand warned BZA members.
Similar concerns were expressed in a letter from West Grandview Drive residents Barry and Paul Thomas that was read into the record by BZA chairman Roger Glick.
Although board members expressed concerns of their own, Stewart won approval to hold for-profit deer and turkey hunts.
Hunting has long been been occurring legally on the property and would have continued no matter what the board decided, Stewart said.
Establishing the for-profit hunting operation required board approval, however, said Stewart representative Jeffery Dank of the Indianapolis-based Ice Miller law firm.
A positive recommendation came from assistant city-county planner Melissa Begley, who said the facility would be in compliance with the four-tier criteria board members are required to consider.
“Approval will not be injurious to the public health, safety, morals and general welfare of the community,” Begley told board members.
In fact, the concept fits in with her department’s comprehensive plan that calls for preserving open spaces “for environmental, recreational, scenic and lifestyle benefits,” Begley said.
Beginning in 2018, Hidden Hollow Ranch will have about one guided hunt per week within Stewart’s estate, located at 10285 Youth Camp Road, Dank told the board.
While the average outing will consist of five hunters, overnight lodgings will be available for groups as large as 12, the attorney said.
“All hunting will be from either stands or structures set up on the property,” Dank said. “None of these will be within 150 yards of the edge of the property. All stands have been set up facing inward (from fence lines). We try to use the contours of the property as backdrops for safety purposes.”
From now through the anticipated opening, specially raised large deer acquired from Miami County will be stocked and raised on the property, Stewart told the board.
“Who doesn’t want to have the biggest deer they could possibly have?” Stewart asked rhetorically during a post-meeting interview.
Working in conjunction with Bass Pro Shops, one of his racing sponsors, all hunters will be kept under the supervision of an experienced guide, Stewart said.
Although the former NASCAR champ said he has been hosting hunts for friends at his own expense for several years without incident, Morris challenged that assertion.
One of her neighbors had a window blown out, while another found a bullet on their deck, Morris said.
However, no evidence was presented during the meeting that either incident was the result of private hunts on Stewart’s estate.
After Morris suggested that fame and wealth may be placing her family and neighbors at an unfair disadvantage, Stewart said he begged to differ.
“With who I am, liability is very high with everything I do,” Stewart said. “We don’t want our hunters shooting toward fences because we can’t have that liability either.”
While disagreeing with worst-case scenarios expressed by opponents, Stewart often nodded in agreement with other statements voiced by Hand and Morris while sitting in the audience.
“They have the same concerns we have about hunters on their properties,” Stewart said. “The biggest concern we all share is that none of us are happy about the state now allowing rifles during deer hunts. With deer slugs, the range wasn’t as far, and none of us worried quite as much.”
Stewart was referring to changes in hunting laws contained in House Bill 1231, signed into law March 27 by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, which went into effect June 30.
Stating his own preference for using archery equipment, Stewart said he only began permitting rifles at the urging of several friends.
“We let them do that, but we make sure that where they hunt will not put anybody in danger,” he said after the meeting.
Hunts will be held only in areas of the large estate with hills featuring high ridges that — along with experienced guides — will ensure the safety and concerns of all parties, Stewart said.
But Hand said he doesn’t see how that is possible when the hunters are positioned on tall stands.
“You can’t get in a stand and have a backdrop,” Hand said. “You are going to be shooting down. That is very, very unsafe.”
After Hand said he believed it was illegal in Indiana to feed the deer you hunt, he was corrected by Dr. Jodi Lovejoy of the State Board of Animal Health, the agency that oversees hunting preserve laws.
“The law just states that deer cannot be shot within 150 feet of a feeding station,” said Lovejoy, who sat with Stewart and Dank at the presentation table.
Even after his request was approved, Stewart had his lawyer wait in a hallway while he met with his neighbors face-to-face for a 20-minute, closed-door meeting elsewhere in City Hall to address their concerns.
Once the doors were opened, Stewart said he has agreed to give those neighbors a tour of Hidden Hollow Ranch in the spring.
“I think that will put their minds at ease,” he said.
The request by Hidden Hollow Ranch, LLC required conditional-use approval to allow a large-scale recreation use — for a hunting and fishing facility — in the agriculture zoning district.
Size of estate: 414 acres
Location: 10285 Youth Camp Road in Harrison Township.
Game: Deer and turkey
Size of hunting parties: Average of five, although groups of up to 12 will have overnight accommodations
Frequency of hunts: Average of once a week from Sept. 1 through March 31, starting in late summer 2018
Charge to hunters: Undetermined at this time