By Tim Cox
The proposed West Bank Rotary Walkway and a related wetlands mitigation project remain in limbo as Celina city officials sort out the details, including some new problems that have recently cropped up.
City Auditor Pat Smith told city council members meeting Monday that the walkway project's costs may exceed the funding source's ability to pay for the work. Additionally, a rural Celina man expressed concerns that the related wetlands mitigation work would negatively affect his nearby land.
City officials already have approved borrowing money to help pay for the proposed mile-long concrete path along West Bank Road that would stretch from the Rotary lighthouse to the state park boat launch area along that road. But a necessary wetlands mitigation project has created a potential snag in the project.
The city is required to create at least three acres of new wetlands to offset the surface area of the lake that would be lost when it is filled in to make room for the path. Community development consultant Kent Bryan has proposed the city pursue a purchase option on up to 55 acres of land along the Coldwater Creek, which would far exceed the city's requirement and help improve the quality of water in Grand Lake. Bryan is hoping the additional acreage could be purchased by other government and private entities to create the wetlands.
The land would cost $12,500 per acre, or $10,000 per acre if all 55 acres were purchased. Acquiring at least 20 acres within the six-month window also would allow the city to extend the purchase option. There is $50,000 set aside for land acquisition and another $25,000 for wetlands development in the estimated $2 million budget for the walkway project. City officials plan to borrow much of the money to finance the work, making annual payments from the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district in the area.
But a whole new set of problems for the project cropped up during discussion at Monday's council meeting.
Smith said he is not sure the city can spend TIF money to acquire and develop wetlands along Coldwater Creek because the area is outside the TIF district and not contiguous to the area. City officials are unwilling to spend general fund tax revenue on the project.
Officials are awaiting a ruling from attorneys on whether the TIF can be tapped for the wetlands project.
"You're not going to get me to cut that check," Smith told council members.
The city cannot get a permit to construct the walkway until a mitigation plan is in place and approved by the state.
City officials could get by purchasing just a small tract of the land along Coldwater Creek, owned by Klosterman Development Corp. Even that would stretch the city's ability to make annual payments from the TIF fund based on current revenue, Smith said.
"We don't know the future," Smith said.
Jake Snyder, who owns land along the creek directly abutting Klosterman's ground, asked how the proposed mitigation plan might affect him. Snyder expressed worries about potential flooding caused by the wetlands and about his access to Grand Lake via the creek.
A low level rock dam would be used to divert the creek through the wetlands area to allow sediment and pollutants to settle out before the water reaches the lake.
Bryan told Snyder the wetlands project should not cause flooding on his land, but said he was unsure of exact details until the wetlands area is designed. As for boating access, Bryan admitted the dam would prevent boats from reaching the lake from the creek and said he had not previously thought of that issue.
Council members eventually passed first reading of the ordinance with council members Ed Jeffries and June Scott voting against it.
"I opposed the walkway and I oppose this because it's tied to the walkway," Jeffries said.
"There's so many unanswered questions and unknowns," said Councilwoman Angie King, who agreed to pass the issue on first reading but said she cannot support the issue in its current form.
There is no guarantee the land would be a workable wetlands solution and no guarantee that other entities would buy into the project. Because of that, some council members are unwilling to risk the non-refundable $15,000 price to secure the option. The $15,000 would count toward the purchase price if the city bought any of Klosterman's land.
Some council members and residents asked if there is any existing city land that could be developed into wetlands to meet the EPA's requirements. Bryan said the lakefront tract of land along U.S. 127 where the city's water plant sludge lagoons are located and another tract behind the city sewer plant could possibly work. Both pieces of land are located along Beaver Creek, which flows away from the lake.
Others have argued against doing a wetlands mitigation project along Beaver Creek because it does nothing to improve the water quality in the lake. Additionally, the land where the sludge lagoons are located would be prime real estate if the ponds were ever removed, as city officials have previously discussed.