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Forty days after landowners in northern Bartholomew County received notices alerting them they’d have to pay thousands of dollars each to improve a 19th-century drainage system, the Bartholomew County Drainage Board bowed to public pressure and killed the $410,000 project.
Many landowners, especially those who farm land in the northernmost sections of Flatrock Township, said the cost to rebuild the aging Cook-Layman Regulated Drain over a 4.5-mile stretch amounted to wasteful spending that could have pushed some farmers into receivership while they struggled to pay huge assessments.
After a tense two-hour meeting Monday night, the drainage board voted to kill the drain project on a 4-0 voice vote. Board member Doug Eckart, who owns property in the affected drainage area, abstained and didn’t take part in the debate. He sat in the front row of the audience as a dozen or more spectators paraded to a microphone at the front of the room and blasted the project as ill-conceived.
“Many of the farmers here are telling you the benefits of this project are far outweighed by the costs. These farmers are telling you not to spend the money. I would trust the farmers,” attorney Jeff Washburn of Columbus said.
Washburn represented landowner Ken Vieth of North Marr Road. Vieth, who sent letters of opposition to the drainage board, has argued that the Cook-Layman repairs would “benefit a few at the expense of the majority of property owners.” Vieth said his assessment would have amounted to more than $31,000.
Nearly 40 opponents of the project occupied most of the folding chairs in a fourth-floor meeting room in county offices on Third Street, where the Bartholomew County Drainage Board met. Others stood at the rear, sometimes shouting questions to drainage board members.
Cost of the proposed improvements to the Cook-Layman drain tile would have fallen on about 50 landowners. Drainage board officials said they received a total of 35 letters of opposition from landowners and heard from a few others in person on Monday night.
“If I made financial decisions like the proposed Cook-Layman Regulated Drain over my lifetime, I would be broke (and) out of the farming business,” Vieth said.
Tom Finke, the county’s hydrologist in the surveyor’s office, said the project was identified in 2008 as one of the county’s drainage priorities. According to Finke’s report to board members, the drain dates from 1882.
With the exception of a segment replaced by landowners since then, it has deteriorated so much that it barely drains at all over big stretches of its length, Finke said.
Vieth said he sees standing water on only about two acres of his property every four years or so. He estimated that he loses $200 in profits per acre in those years. But he added that by his calculations, if he had been forced to pay the assessment, it would have taken 310 years to recoup his money.
Finke said the Cook-Layman improvements would have replaced large stretches of drainage tile and improved the capacity of the system pushing water into Flatrock River at the system’s lower stretches.
He said the existing system is filled with silt, and tiles are “undersized and overloaded.”
The $410,000 project was the most expensive Finke could remember since he started with the county in 1986. It would have extended the drain tile about 10,000 feet and replaced 13,800 feet of existing tile. Instead of an open slough that simply stops in a field, the revamped drain would have emptied into Flatrock River with a capacity of 5 million gallons a day at that point, he said. Assessments on property owners would have been due in spring 2016 and could have been paid over five years with 10 percent interest, Finke said.
Finke said the benefits of the proposal would have been better drainage downstream, improved use of some agricultural land that no longer would be plagued by standing water and higher property values.
But the vast majority of farmers disagreed with those conclusions, saying the project wouldn’t pay out in enough benefits for them.
Landowner Bill Hill, who faced a $17,000 assessment, complained that the project also required property owners to grant an easement to the county along the drainage system that amounted to the public taking of land at no cost.
Longtime farmer Tom Lentz acknowledged that part of his family’s property is too wet to farm roughly one-third of the time, but he wasn’t convinced the drainage proposal would fix things.
“I doubt the project works on the middle and upper ends of the drain,” he said.
Farmer David Andrews, 71, said drainage board members were wasting their time considering such a flawed proposal.
“I could have stayed home tonight and watched ‘Duck Dynasty’ on TV,” he said. “It makes a lot more sense to me.”
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