At 50, Country Squire Lakes looks ahead, haunted by troubled past

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Country Squire Lakes property manager and receiver Mike Miller talks about the work he has overseen to clean of the blighted community outside of North Vernon, Ind., Thursday, July 27, 2023. The pictures on the walls are of hundreds of blighted homes and mobile homes that have been cleared from lots since he took receivership of the community roughly seven years ago.

JENNINGS COUNTY — Mike Miller’s office walls are covered with unsightly 8-by-11 photos — a collage of trashed, burned-out trailers, junked campers, abandoned hoards and overgrown lots strewn with garbage.

Every picture represents one of hundreds of properties at Country Squire Lakes in Jennings County that has been cleaned up. But Miller only half-jokes that the photos might someday cover the ceiling too. As CSL’s court-appointed receiver and manager, he’s maybe halfway finished removing the blight from a sprawling 1,400-acre development that began life 50 years ago as a rural retreat marketed to city folks as an affordable weekend getaway. The reality of recent decades has been a spiral into a notoriously dangerous haven for drugs and crime.

Yet things are happening at Country Squire Lakes now that haven’t occurred in years. In some places, builders are constructing brand new residential, stick-built homes. On a recent summer weekday, dozens of children on summer break, many from outside the development, played basketball on a freshly paved court and joined in activities inside the recently established Boys & Girls Club at the just-renovated clubhouse. There are plans to build a new public safety building next door, and Jennings County Sheriff’s deputies now are assigned to the property.

There is literal community buy-in, and a flickering sense of optimism in a place of 3,500 people where the Country Squire Lakes name has long been synonymous with its troubles.

Buying in

Miller, a lifelong Jennings County resident and a retired business owner, doesn’t sugar-coat Country Squire Lakes. “They certainly owned the perception they had,” he said, “… but I’ve got a passion about this.” He’s trying make the development stand for something else — clean, safe living.

“We’ve definitely turned the tide,” he said. “The water’s not coming in anymore; it’s coming out.”

Jennings County government has stepped in at Country Squire Lakes in a major way. For instance, the county last year took ownership of all 34 miles of formerly private roads within the development in an arrangement that compensated the development’s Community Association with $1 million.

Miller said the deal made sense for both parties. In owning the roads, the county will receive more annual road funding under the state formula while Country Squire Lakes will be relieved of an impossible financial burden. The development’s revenue comes from dues of $325 a year assessed on each lot, plus income from the sale of lots.

“Basically the only thing I see is benefits” to using public money to help CSL, said County Commissioner Matt Sporleder, who along with County Council member Mike Gerth sits on the CSL advisory board that reports to Miller.

“It was basically run down and turned into something that wasn’t really good for the community. … Now, we have property values increasing,” Sporleder said. He and others note there was a time you couldn’t give away property at Country Squire Lakes.

“At one point, the county had over 1,000 properties” due to unpaid property taxes. Working with Miller, “We have an agreement where we are trying to offer those properties up to adjacent, responsible property owners.” The rest Miller is selling. Cheap.

Yet Sporleder makes a bold prediction on the money the county invests at CSL and the return that could come from rising land values and a growing tax base. “Ultimately,” he said, “the money that’s been spent out there, I think we’re going to get it back three-fold.”

Emphasis on safety

Maintenance manager Robert Luttrell has lived at Country Squire Lakes since 1988. He said it was nice when he moved in. Asked to describe the changes over the years since, he shook his head and said simply, “Whew.”

“I’ve been here through the good, the bad and the ugly,” Luttrell said. But he said things are looking up.

With the approval of Sheriff Kenny Freeman, there is now consistent law enforcement presence at Country Squire Lakes, and plans filed for a public safety building to house police and fire units next to the clubhouse.

“We’re aware of the element,” Sheriff’s Deputy John Hartman said of drug dealers who still live at the development. Information about busts is regularly posted on the sheriff’s department’s Facebook page, and Hartman, a deputy assigned to the development who is also a certified firefighter, said word has gotten around that “Squire” is no longer a lawless refuge.

“We’re aware of their activities,” Hartman said. “People we’ve arrested have said that.”

Hartman said the law enforcement presence alone is a deterrent to crime. Before, when he or other deputies had to come from Vernon or elsewhere in the county, response times could be considerable. Now, a deputy at the development can respond quickly. Miller noted that years ago, 60% to 70% of the sheriff’s 911 calls were from Country Squire Lakes. It’s about 14% now, he said.

Sporleder said improving safety has been a focus. Working with the school system, for instance, bus stops have been designated, play areas have been improved, and animal control has worked to round up aggressive stray dogs, long a problem on the property.

Still, the perception of Country Squire Lakes also remains reality. State Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, had northern parts of Jennings County — including the development — added to her District 42 effective in November. She had never heard of Country Squire Lakes, but she took an invitation to visit a few weeks back.

“I had my eyes opened,” she said, noting that the morning she visited, a woman who lived there had died of a drug overdose.

“This is not a normal situation,” Leising said. She observed some of the trailers on the property appeared to be from the 1940s or 1950s and were obviously blighted.

At the same time, she said she was impressed with the strides Miller and local officials have made removing blight and improving the community. “I’m very impressed he’s working with the Boys & Girls Clubs,” she said of Miller. “If any kids in my district could benefit from a Boys & Girls Club, it’s probably those kids in that area.”

Jessica Kegley is the manager of Boys & Girls Club programs at Country Squire Lakes and in Hayden. She said kids who join in take part in arts and crafts and STEM activities, go on field trips, play games, get healthy exercise and more. They’ve painted murals on the walls inside the clubhouse, and as many as 40 kids a day took part in summer programs.

Kegley, who grew up at Country Squire Lakes, said she and some of the kids in the program have felt the sting of being derisively called “a CSL kid.” It can hurt, she said.

“I just tell them to be better than everyone expects them to be,” she said.

Marie Shepherd, director of the Jennings County Area Plan Commission, is responsible for code enforcement, and often condemnation, demolition and cleanup of blighted properties.

She said “95% of the people work with us, and I work with them, because we’re all out to make things better.”

That said, she and others said a major problem remains with absentee landlords who have acquired large numbers of substandard or uninhabitable properties and rent or sell them on contract under the radar.

“Some of the houses you go into you almost need a hazmat suit to go into, and I’m not exaggerating at all,” Shepherd said.

Stronger local ordinances passed in recent years have allowed Shepherd to bring as many as 150 cases to court annually seeking code enforcement actions. Yet Country Squire Lakes and the county have to work within their budgets.

“We have a lot of people that will turn in their own places because they’re tired of it,” she said. Yet that also raises the problem of where they then will live.

Prior leadership enforced no minimum standards at Country Squire Lakes, Miller said, allowing mobile homes in any condition to be placed on lots. His intervention as receiver/manager came after a local court ruled years back that conditions had gotten so bad that residents no longer had to pay association dues. That ruling was overturned on appeal, but by then the damage had been done. Country Squire Lakes was in financial ruin and conditions only worsened.

Now, years later, Miller appears monthly in court to provide updates on progress and files annual public reports that are posted on the development’s website. He notes that when he got involved, CSL had about $20,000 in the bank and was about $550,000 in debt. Now, it has no debt and about $1 million in the bank. CSL has a small cushion to spend money on community projects, including the public safety building and a much-needed dredging of the main lake next year.

Problems and promise

In the eight years that Miller has been the court-appointed receiver, he and his team have cleared more than 300 blighted properties. He figures if he had the blight removal funding, there would probably be another 300 properties they would go after.

He drives down winding, wooded roads past small man-made lakes, along with the one large one, and he points out properties he knows like the back of his hand. Here a young family just moved in, here a condemned trailer squats, we just cleared this property out, and so on.

Miller eventually turns and drives up the crest of a hill, stopping where Columbus Realtor and retired banker Joe Hauersperger of Century 21 Breeden Realtors is helping a crew of builders from Madison. They are building “barndominiums” — new homes that are raised on pole barn construction designs. A four-bedroom, two-bath model, about 1,200 square feet, just sold for about $140,000. Another larger model is under construction across the street.

Hauersperger has lined up 15 lots to build on, and he’s calling this development The Barnyards at CSL. His crew is one of several active builders constructing new residential homes rather than mobile homes at Country Squire Lakes.

“It’s coming along really well,” Hauersperger said. “I couldn’t be happier. … We’re getting some traffic out of Columbus.”

For Hauersperger and other builders, the economics make sense in a time of housing shortages and sky-high prices even for entry-level homes. As an example, he said building in Seymour would cost $30,000 or more for a buildable lot; $40,000 or more in Columbus.

At Country Squire Lakes, he can buy ready-to-build lots for as little as $3,000. His costs, and therefore the list price of new homes, are much lower. And Miller notes the development is just 20 minutes or so from both downtown Columbus and the industrial parks at Walesboro.

Leising, the state senator, said she’s helping local officials work with the Department of Natural Resources to obtain lake dredging permits, among other things. She also said she’s been in touch with Indiana Sen. Todd Young’s office, which she said has committed to have someone from his staff visit Country Squire Lakes.

“I think there might be some federal rural money to help with the blighted areas, and this certainly would be a rural blighted area,” Leising said. And there might be some state assistance available for CSL, too.

“I am kind of frustrated that nobody that preceded me has made any efforts at the state or federal level to try to help them,” Leising said. She’s hopeful that she and some new elected leaders representing the region, including newly appointed Rep. Alex Zimmerman, R-North Vernon, and Congresswoman Erin Houchin, might help get some stabilizing funding for Country Squire Lakes.

“I’m going to continue to work on this,” Leising said. “If they have done all this without any help from the state and federal government, why wouldn’t we want to help?”