NEW CARLISLE — St. Joseph County commissioners voted 2-1 on Wednesday to approve the nearly $1 million purchase of 90 acres in this area, where the county hopes to soon attract big companies and create hundreds of jobs.
But the vote to buy the property from Inland Steel Co., which drew a “no” from County Commissioner Dave Thomas, has raised questions about whether the strategy for developing the area is in the best interest of farmers.
The purchase is part of the county’s long-term vision for developing more than 20,000 acres into an industrial park — the Indiana Enterprise Center — to the east of New Carlisle in Olive Township.
Plans call for buying land needed to relocate the Niespodziany Ditch to the west — making room for development — and extending railroad tracks south from the Northfolk-Southern Railroad to reach the area.
To attract businesses, the goal is to have option-to-buy agreements in place this year for 2,500 to 3,000 acres of land situated between Indiana 2 and U.S. 20.
At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners agreed to buy an 82-acre property at the southwest corner of Edison and Walnut roads from Inland Steel, along with a narrow strip of land on the north side of Edison. That strip will broaden a section of Edison’s right of way so the road could be widened in the future.
Bill Schalliol, the county’s economic development director, said the Inland Steel property is needed for the ditch relocation and railroad tracks.
The county plans to negotiate the purchase of several more properties this year that are needed to relocate a 2.5-mile portion of the ditch.
That portion would span south from Edison Road, run beneath Indiana 2, and connect to an unaltered part of the ditch near Gordon Road. It would not take a direct route, however, and instead zigzag through hundreds of acres of farmland to the north of Indiana 2.
Schalliol said state and federal regulators require the ditch to “not follow a clear path but to meander as if it was a natural waterway, so we have to meander. I would like to build a straight-line ditch, but we can’t.”
Some farmers, including Randy Matthys, are wary of the ditch relocation plan.
Matthys, who sits on the five-member county drainage board, said his family owns 240 acres to the south of Indiana 2 that would be affected by the plan. He said other farmers would also be affected.
“I don’t agree with the reroute,” he said, “but the engineers have shown me it could be done.”
Thomas, who is also a member of the drainage board, said he joined Matthys and other board members to express concerns about the ditch plan at a meeting in May. Minutes from that meeting state the board not “endorse any recommendations” for the plan.
Land is being bought with property taxes collected from businesses within the New Carlisle area tax increment finance district. The district’s fund has a balance of $11.5 million.
In voting against the purchase, Thomas referred to the “county’s budget problems.”
He said he doesn’t support “spending nearly $1 million on farmland that is not needed and may not even be permitted for whatever desire someone might have.”
Schalliol said the county hopes secure land needed to relocate the ditch by the end of the year, before seeking permits to do so. He is hopeful that the drainage board will formally endorse the relocation plan when the land is controlled.
Schalliol, however, said County Surveyor John McNamara told him the drainage board’s endorsement wouldn’t be needed to acquire permits to relocate the ditch.
Even so, “we will go back to the board with information we were asked to gather to try to get their formal endorsement,” he said.
In the coming months, Schalliol added, four companies are expected to announce “large scale” projects in the area. Those businesses could start operating next year and in 2020.
“We have several projects in various states that, when announced, will show the story we’ve been telling is right on track with our mission,” Schalliol said, adding that three prospects expressed interest in rail access.
County Commissioner Andy Kostielney said he supports Schalliol’s efforts.
“We’ve let this area lie dormant, for lack of leadership, for a number of years,” he said.