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Flood-prone homes weigh on minds of city officials

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Some homes near Potts Ditch in central Greenfield have flooded multiple times over the past decade. As they prepare to kick off the ditch's reconstruction, officials are considering buying them. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
Some homes near Potts Ditch in central Greenfield have flooded multiple times over the past decade. As they prepare to kick off the ditch's reconstruction, officials are considering buying them. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — The condition of the houses along Fourth Street could deteriorate if the city doesn’t purchase and demolish them, some local officials say.

The Greenfield Board of Works might decide Tuesday whether to make offers to buy and raze five homes on Fourth Street just west of State Street.

The homes are in a floodway and are consistently impacted by the overflowing Potts Ditch. Some say removing the dwellings will assist with the ditch relocation project and help homeowners. But questions persist over the cost and whether the city should use public money to buy private properties.

Potts Ditch is a watershed that runs through the entire city, becoming an underground tunnel once it reaches the downtown area. Because the tunnel is undersized for the amount of water it handles during heavy rainfall, city officials have been debating for decades whether to reroute the ditch.

Last year, officials signed off on a $10 million relocation project; the official approval process for financing will come up at next week’s city council meeting, and ground might be broken on construction by mid-June.

Mike Fruth, the city’s director of utilities, said the properties located at 20, 34, 35, 37 and 106 W. Fourth St. could be purchased to help save with construction expenses and to help the homeowners.

While the city has acquired strips of land for public improvement projects in the past, this would be the first time the city would buy an entire home – or as many as five homes – for a project.

“It’s a situation where we’re using public money to acquire properties – which we do all the time for projects – but in this case, they’re properties that are being flooded,” Fruth said. “It’s a situation where people who would occupy those homes could be physically at risk.”

Fruth and city engineer Karla Vincent pitched the idea to the Greenfield Board of Works March 11, but with questions on expenses, the board put the decision on hold.

The five properties could cost as much as $300,000 total to buy; an exact amount has not yet been made public because offers haven’t been made. The homes have assessed values ranging from $37,000 to $83,000.

Fruth said it would cost $40,000 to raze all five houses.

The houses are a mix of owner-occupied and rental properties, and some of them still have debris and furniture sitting outside from December’s flooding. According to estimates from the Hancock County Surveyor’s office, rainfall Dec. 12 put 2 to 5 feet of water on the exterior of the homes; some of the homes had 1 to 2 feet of water inside.

Fruth and Vincent said since the homes are in a floodway – a type of property most susceptible to flooding – there’s no guarantee the Potts Ditch relocation project will fix their problem. And because they’re in a floodway, any building permits for major renovations would have to be approved by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR would likely tell the landowners their homes need to be raised above the flood level, which could cost more than the home is worth, Vincent said last week.

Fruth said the city plans to make offers to the homeowners. But the city will not enter negotiations if the homeowners refuse the initial offer.

Unlike many similar projects, the city does not have to buy the homes to complete the Potts Ditch relocation. Removing them, however, would make it easier for machinery to negotiate the area during construction.

If the homes remain in place, Fruth added, they could get flooded again and deteriorate.

Mayor Chuck Fewell, one of the members of the board of works, said he’s in favor of the purchases.

“I can’t help but think we have a chance right now at a very minimal price to correct a major problem,” Fewell said.

The city had planned to spend roughly $300,000 anyway for right of way acquisition for the project, and Fewell said it could make construction bids come in lower if companies do not have to maneuver around buildings. Three of the properties are adjacent to where a 6-foot by 14-foot concrete box will be placed.

Fewell said the properties could eventually become blighted, in which case the city might have to step in for building-code violations anyway.

“The city should go ahead and purchase those properties because we are trying to do a project the city of Greenfield is investing about $10 million in,” Fewell said. “When you invest that much money, I don’t want one end of the project to undo what we’ve done all throughout the city.”

Board member Kelly McClarnon said he still has plenty of questions before voting Tuesday. McClarnon wants to know more about demolition costs, the timeline for razing the homes and how it fits into the entire project.

Board member Dan Reigelsperger said he is worried about the condition of the homes should the city not buy them and demolish them. While Reigelsperger also wants to ask more answers about demolition and acquisition costs, he’s in favor of the plan to make offers on the homes.

“I think it’s going to make the project run smoother and keep it within budget, so we don’t have change orders come through because they’d have to work around (the houses),” Reigelsperger said.

The purchase of the houses has not been in the Potts Ditch relocation plans all along, Fruth added. The flooding in December forced city officials to rethink the project, and they began to ask homeowners if they would be interested in selling. Many of the property owners are ready to hear an offer, he added.

“When the flooding occurred and the extensive damage to the homes, for some it was the third time in 10 years it was flooded,” Fruth said. “There was discussion maybe in the interest of trying to benefit the project and the design of the project, we’d just pursue purchasing the properties.”

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