North River Purchase Agreement Held Amid Council, Public Skepticism

Nov 22, 2017

Overhead of the North River site, on Fourth and Clinton and across the road from Science Central.
Credit Google Earth

Fort Wayne City Council put discussion for a controversial land acquisition proposal on hold until next week’s meeting.

Last week, it was announced the city arranged an agreement to buy the 29-acre property on the northwest corner of Fourth and Clinton, known as North River, for $4.63 million. The land has been owned privately by the Rifkin family since 2006, and has largely been vacant for two decades.

But the agreement, which was made in July, caught council off guard upon its announcement. Instead of moving the measure to the next step, Tuesday’s meeting was spent parsing out the environmental needs of the site, as well as potential hazards.

Fort Wayne corporate counsel Tim Haffner spoke to council for an hour providing more details. He explained why the city was committed to purchasing the land, while defending what council and constituents saw as a hurried process.

“Any agreement requires a willing buyer and a willing seller to come to terms on an agreement,” said Haffner. “We did, at a price the city believes is fair, based on the ultimate use, the importance of downtown, and candidly, the increase in value of downtown properties.”

Councilman at-large Michael Barranda grilled Haffner on a number of specifics, primarily the indemnification agreement in the deal. This provision would clear the Rifkin family from liability if environmental hazards are discovered later on.

“I agree the language is boilerplate, but our citizens don’t want boilerplate, they want negotiated specific language that protects them as specific as possible,” said Barranda. “I think we should be looking at language that protects the taxpayers.”

“In the theoretical world, that would be a possibility,” Haffner responded. “In the real world, negotiating the purchase agreement with the seller, it was not a possibility.”

“Whether it was or wasn’t possible, it will affect our votes,” Barranda said.

Cleaning up the land was the biggest concern: contamination has already been found in some spots, and cleanup would cost an estimated $250,000, with possibly an additional $600,000 to mitigate environmental hazards that may arise. Members of council were worried about health risks to those who would be working on the site, as well as surprise hazards that may be worse than projected.

Kyle Hendrix is a redevelopment coordinator with Indiana Department of Environmental Management, and was present for Tuesday’s meeting. He attempted to assure council that, in comparison to other projects around the state, cleanup of the North River property shouldn’t present too many problems.

“It’s a fairly straightforward site, and we know it has soil contamination. The approach that’s been presented seems very reasonable,” said Hendrix.

The measure was ultimately placed on hold with an 8-1 vote -- Barranda was the only dissenting tally. At-large councilman John Crawford informed Haffner that had this been presented to council closer to its summer purchase, many of the concerns would have already been addressed.

Second district councilman Russ Jehl says even though council made important strides in the process Tuesday night, public trust for the project may already be broken.

“I’ve been telling people, ‘You’re going to get numbers tonight, is that what you want?’ And there are many people who are so offended and emotionally charged about this now, they just believe the worst in this transaction,” Jehl said.

“For some people, that may not be salvageable.”

The measure was only placed on hold until next week; the first official council discussion will be held next Tuesday, with a possible final vote in two weeks.