Monroe County set for final vote on limestone heritage land, no news on convention center project

At their Wednesday morning meeting, the three Monroe County commissioners approved a $640,000 purchase of land that contains several limestone quarry holes, at the northwest side of the interchange of SR-46 and I-69.

That sets up a final vote on the land purchase by the seven-member county council at its June 14 meeting. The council heard the item for a first reading this week at its Tuesday work session.

The purpose of the land acquisition is to establish the location as a kind of outdoor limestone museum that celebrates Monroe County’s heritage of high quality limestone, and the role the limestone industry has played in local history.

The land that is currently pending a final vote would add about 70 acres to another 29 acres just to the north, which was purchased by the county in fall 2021 for the same purpose.

Then as now, county councilor Mary Hawk raised objections, based on the land’s history adjoining an EPA Superfund site. When the item comes back for a second reading, Hawk will be voting no.

The funding for the land acquisition will come from issuance of a general obligation (GO) bond issued in 2019.

When land acquisition is complete, funding for the development of the site as a tourist destination will come at least in part from the Monroe County government’s share of the 1-percent food and beverage tax (FBT).

Food and beverage tax: Convention center expansion?

In fall 2019, the food and beverage tax advisory commission (FABTAC) approved the use of up to $500,000 in FBT revenue on the limestone heritage project.

FBT revenue is distributed to the city of Bloomington, if the establishment collecting it is located inside city limits—otherwise it goes to Monroe County. As a practical matter, that works out to about a 90-10 split for Bloomington.

Bloomington is planning to use its share of the food and beverage tax revenue to help fund the expansion of the Monroe County convention center. That’s supposed to be a joint project of the Bloomington and Monroe County governments, but it stalled before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. The two sides disagreed over the composition of a capital improvement board to govern the project.

On Wednesday, after the county commissioners concluded their meeting, they told The B Square there had been no recent communication or negotiations between Monroe County and Bloomington to move the convention center expansion forward. There was no news on that topic to report, they said.

Revenues from the food and beverage tax continue to accumulate, after taking somewhat of a hit during the pandemic. The tax started getting collected in March 2018. During the pandemic, both Bloomington and Monroe County used some of the accumulated funds to support businesses who were impacted by lost revenue during that period.

But food and beverage tax revenues rebounded quickly.

Bloomington’s food and beverage tax fund balance at the end of 2021 was $9,022,600.77. Adding the revenue from this year’s food and beverage tax distributions so far would bring that amount to about $10 million.

Monroe County’s food and beverage tax fund balance at the end of 2021 was $752,917.03. Adding the revenue from this year’s food and beverage tax distributions so far would bring that amount to about $900,000.


PCB contamination of land planned for tourist site?

Some Ledge Wall Quarry real estate, which extends along the edge of SR-46, is the remaining land yet to be purchased by Monroe County for its planned limestone heritage site. It partly surrounds property owned by CBS, which has a history of PCB contamination.

In the parcel map, the bit owned by CBS looks like a kind of “notch” taken out of the parcel to the south, which belongs to Ledge Wall.

The CBS-owned land is home to Bennett Stone Quarry, a site that last fall was officially taken off the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List.

The property was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list due to contamination from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) arising from electrical capacitors that were dumped at the site during the 1960s and 1970s.

The property was taken off the list, according to the EPA’s news release, because: “EPA has determined that cleanups…are completed and no further action is required other than continued operation and maintenance, monitoring, and five-year reviews”.

On the issue of PCBs, county commissioners got an oral presentation at an August 2021 meeting from Diane Henshel, who is an Indiana University professor at the O’Neill School of public and environmental affairs. She is described in her bio as an “expert in risk assessment and sub-lethal health effects of environmental pollutants.”

Henshel had been contracted by commissioners for $8,000 to provide the county a risk assessment report for the land, which was to include a review of environmental documents and consideration of chemical and other safety risks that are potentially associated with the property.

Last fall, Henshel told commissioners  that there are still PCBs in the bedrock of the area and it’s not possible to get rid of them—because the karst limestone making up the bedrock is full of crevices. The PCBs continue to wash out of the bedrock during flooding and heavy rains, Henshel said.

Henshel noted that the FEMA 100-year floodplain cuts across the property that the county is looking to acquire. She reported that during a site visit after a rain in spring 2021, “We could explicitly smell PCBs.”

The proposed quarry center contemplates having an onsite employee who would potentially be exposed to PCBs for longer periods of time than visitors would be. Henshel told commissioners, “As far as a park employee…, the calculations are still within reasonable for exposure to the PCBs.” She added, “But we still think it would be better if the park employee were not pregnant or nursing.”

The Ledge Wall property has environmental covenants on it, which restrict the way that drainage can be altered.

It was in that context that councilor Marty Hawk delivered some brief remarks at the county council’s Tuesday work session on the topic of the first reading of the land purchase.

“I’ll try to be polite about this: I have never one time, not one second, been in favor of doing this,” Hawk said.

Hawk continued, “For those of us my age, we remember how we fought the PCBs and anything that was around it. We saw the problems that it caused and the dollars that it cost the county for years and years and years.” Hawk wrapped up, “There’s no way I can support this, whatsoever.”

County council president Kate Wiltz responded to Hawk on Tuesday by saying, “That’s why the county is a good steward of this land—we can take the painful past and interpret it for the future.” Hawk replied, “We can just disagree on that.”

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