Environment and Government and Real Estate & Retail

Hamilton County officials splash cold water on RiverPlace: Upstream trouble on White River could result from adding fill, overflow channel

December 11, 2006

A government panel is echoing the concerns of the Hoosier Environmental Council that Centre Properties' proposed RiverPlace development along White River at 96th Street could worsen the effects of a flood.

The Hamilton County Drainage Board doesn't carry the weight of the U.S. Geological Survey, but its opinion could influence the giant, mixed-use project's chances of winning a rezoning case.

A letter the drainage board sent recently to the Fishers planning commission comes just before the Fishers Town Council considers this month or early next a rezoning that Centre needs before it can proceed with the nearly 70-acre housing, retail and office development.

Centre's previous alteration of the White River floodway, west of Allisonville Road and north of 96th Street, "does not conform with sound storm water management or flood plain management practices," Hamilton Surveyor Kenton Ward wrote Nov. 14, in a letter to the planning commission.

The huge project Centre has planned for the site would render irreversible the fill work that's already been done.

Ward anticipates that reduced water flow at the site would cause flooding upstream near 116th Street.

"After careful consideration of the potential consequences of this project, the Hamilton County Drainage Board recommends denial of this plan," he wrote.

Ward said Centre's adding of fill along the east side of the riverbank "will have significant impact on Hamilton County, Carmel and residents living along the river and its flood plain."

Last month, the Fishers planning commission, by a vote of 5-4, failed to send a favorable recommendation to the council that Centre's property be rezoned. Much of the discussion involved the density of the proposed development, however, not its environmental impact.

Still, HEC won't turn away any corroboration it can get these days that might help its case as Fishers' elected officials prepare to consider what could be an irresistible contribution to town coffers.

Centre officials previously indicated the $350 million to $500 million project could pay real estate taxes of more than $5 million a year.

"From the town of Fishers' perspective, it's quite a nice windfall," said Kevin Frank, who lives upstream from the proposed development near 116th Street, in an area that flooded in 2003.

"The public's opinion seems to matter little. What matters is what the town council wants and the tax revenue," Frank added.

"The time horizon of politicians is so short," said Clarke Kahlo, an HEC officer. "These guys are all about boom times, and they don't want to have cold water thrown on their plans."

The opinion of Ward and the drainage board "supports our position about the potential adverse effects of this floodway fill, that there will be very likely a high potential for damage down the road," Kahlo added.

At issue are two modifications Centre has made. One involves its previous bulldozing of about 15 acres of fill into the east bank of the flood plain. The other involves an overflow channel it cut closer to the river bottom.

Centre's attempts to develop the River-Place site over the last decade have had more twists and turns than the river itself. After fighting environmentalists and failing to secure a state permit several times, Centre in August 2005 got approval from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to make changes along the river.

HEC responded by filing a petition for judicial review in Marion Superior Court to overturn the DNR order granting a permit. A ruling is imminent in that case.

In testimony filed in the suit, Centre Properties President Craig W. Johnson said a hydraulic modeling study found that elevation of the river upstream during a 100-year flood would not rise more than fifteen-hundredths of a foot.

The HEC filed an affidavit from an expert who disputes that. The fill and the overflow channel will ultimately force "an increase in the upstream water surface elevation to compensate for the decrease in flow capacity," said Arthur C. Parola Jr., director of the University of Louisville Stream Institute.

Parola said his preliminary analysis showed a number of problems with the model relied on by Centre Properties that "underestimate the effects of the project on flood elevations," including levels near the Frank property.

But Donna Marron, an attorney at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun, representing Centre, countered that Parola's view amounts to a preliminary analysis.

"He didn't run his own data," Marron said.

She also noted that the fill placed on the eastern bank of the flood plain is about 500 feet from the closest riverbank. Although fill was added, the overflow channel was also excavated, providing additional flow for river water.

"It's all engineered. It's not left to chance," she added.



Staff reporter Jennifer Whitson contributed to this report.
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