Monroe county council on course to pay $1.25 million for land to develop limestone heritage tourist, educational destination

As soon as Monroe County councilors approve the purchase agreements that have been drawn up, a total of $1.25 million will be paid by the county to three different land owners to create a site where the history of the area’s limestone heritage is documented. Quarry holes are a feature of the land to be acquired.

If some property near the near the Woolery Mill and the mill property itself were in play as a possible limestone heritage site, they’re no longer on the table, based on comments from county councilors after their work session on Tuesday.

At its Tuesday work session, the county council scheduled an executive session, for Feb. 5 at 1 p.m. to talk about the land acquisition. The topic of land acquisition is one of the exceptions given in Indiana’s Open Door Law for meeting in a closed session. Governmental entities that meet in executive session still have to give notice to the public about the fact that the meeting is going to take place.

The next regular meeting of the Monroe County council is scheduled for Feb. 11, when final approval of  the land deals between the county and the three different property owners could take place.

One of the properties carries with it an environmental restrictive covenant that recites its history as part of an area polluted with PCBs.  The history of the parcel, which is next to an EPA clean-up site, is one of the reasons county councilor Marty Hawk has been skeptical about the project location.

Hawk’s concerns were drawn out last fall, when the land acquisition for the project was proposed to be included as a project to be funded with some general obligation bonds the county council issues annually. The land acquisition was eventually included in the bond proposal. Hawk voted against the bond issuance.

At Tuesday’s work session, Hawk also expressed concern about the fact that the county had sought a third appraisal of the land’s value, after the first two the county had differed by such a wide margin. The lower figure totaled $575,000, which is less than half the higher figure of $1,400,000. [Link to folder with property appraisals]

Under a state statute, the county can’t pay more than the average of two appraisals. Hawk cited her real estate bona fides at the council—she’s been a real estate agent for 30 years. Hawk said it’s a “rare occasion” when the buyer works hard to ensure the purchase price is as high as possible.

The third appraisal totaled $1,285,000 for the properties, lower than but still closer to the higher of the initial two appraisals.

The differences in the appraisals look pretty uniform across the properties held by the three different owners. The county’s accepted offers range between 90 percent and 97 percent of the maximum that could be paid under the state law, using the average of the two higher appraisals.

Based on the purchase agreements, which are pending ratification by the county council, the county will be paying $262,500 more than the maximum that would have been allowed, if no third appraisal had been obtained.

Here’s how those figures break down:

Ledge Wall (69.82A) Yates (14.57A) Francis (14.89A) Totals
$900,000 $250,000 $250,000 $1,400,000 1. First Appraisal Group, Inc.
$350,000 $120,000 $105,000 $575,000 2.  Integra Realty
$830,000 $225,000 $230,000 $1,285,000 3. Figg Appraisal Group
$625,000 $185,000 $177,500 $987,500 AVG of 1&2
$865,000 $237,500 $240,000 $1,342,500 AVG of 1&3 (max allowed)
$590,000 $172,500 $167,500 $930,000 AVG of 2&3
$805,000 $230,000 $215,000 $1,250,000 accepted offer (subject to council OK)
$180,000 $45,000 $37,500 $262,500 amount more than AVG of 1&2
93.06% 96.84% 89.58% 93.11% PCT of max

The state statute on averaging two appraisals reads as follows:

IC 36-1-10.5-3 “Purchasing agent” defined
Sec. 3. As used in this chapter, “purchasing agent” means the board or officer of a political subdivision or agency with the power to purchase land or structures.
As added by P.L.336-1987, SEC.1.

IC 36-1-10.5-5 Purchase of land or structure; required procedures
Sec. 5. A purchasing agent shall purchase land or a structure only after compliance with the following procedures:

(1) The fiscal body of the political subdivision shall pass a resolution to the effect that it is interested in making a purchase of specified land or a structure.
(2) The purchasing agent shall appoint two (2) appraisers to appraise the fair market value of the land or structure. The appraisers must be professionally engaged in making appraisals or be trained as an appraiser and licensed as a broker under IC 25-34.1.
(3) The appraisers shall return their separate appraisals to the purchasing agent within thirty (30) days after the date of their appointment. The purchasing agent shall keep the appraisals on file in the purchasing agent’s office for five (5) years after they are given to the purchasing agent.
(4) The purchasing agent shall give a copy of both appraisals to the fiscal body.
As added by P.L.336-1987, SEC.1.

IC 36-1-10.5-6 Limitation on purchase price
Sec. 6. A purchasing agent may not purchase any land or structure for a price greater than the average of the two (2) appraisals received under section 5 of this chapter.
As added by P.L.336-1987, SEC.1.

Asked by The Square Beacon after the Tuesday work session about the procedure in the statute, county attorney Margie Rice said the enumerated steps were not required to be completed in the listed order. So from that point of view, there’s nothing to prevent a the council from obtaining a third appraisal, according to Rice.

Asked if the phrase “two (2) appraisers” in the statute should be interpreted to mean “exactly two appraisers”—which would preclude a third appraisal—Rice said no, citing the fact that Indiana is a “home rule” state. Because it’s not explicitly disallowed in the statute, Rice said, the county is able to get as many appraisals as it thinks are appropriate.

The state legislature knows how to stop local governments from doing things, Rice said. And if state law makers wanted to prevent a local government from seeking a third appraisal, they could have written the law to say, “only two appraisers,” Rice said.

Beyond the general obligation bond, the county has secured at least one other source of funding for the limestone heritage project. Last year, the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FBTAC) authorized the county to use $500,000 of the county’s share of the tax for development of the limestone heritage site.

At the late-October meeting when the FTAC authorized those funds, commissioners took care to stress that the funding was not linked to a particular location for the limestone heritage site.

That’s because at their meeting they were pitched a possible alternative site. Randy Cassady, who owns the Woolery Stone Mill property, told the FBTAC he believed that the owners of some quarry property near the Woolery Mill are willing to sell the land to the county. Cassady and his wife, Tamby Wikle-Cassady, both urged the FBTAC to consider alternate sites.

At their Dec. 18 meeting, Monroe County commissioners were briefed by county attorney Jeff Cockerill about checking into any interest that property owners near the Woolery Mill might have in selling their property, and if so, what the asking price might be.  Commissioner Julie Thomas expressed some skepticism at the mid-December meeting about the interest in selling, based on a conversation she’d had with a property owner.

In an early January email to The Square Beacon from Wikle-Cassady, she said that the county commissioners, county councilors, and county attorney Jeff Cockerill were all notified in writing that the Woolery Mill with a few adjoining parcels are available for purchase. Wikle-Cassady said their efforts to bring the landowners together for discussions with the county commissioners “did not come to fruition.”

The county is also looking at some grants as potential sources of funding for the project. Applications have been made for grants from the Community Foundation and the Regional Opportunities Initiative. Those grants, if awarded, would amount to $300,000 in funding.

Asked about the status of those grant applications on Wednesday after their regular meeting, county commissioners Lee Jones and Penny Githens told The Square Beacon the county is still working with the grantors to provide some additional information.