City officials approve TIF-like district to fund new levee in Rocky Ripple

floodwaters

Flood control could finally be coming to Indianapolis’ Rocky Ripple neighborhood, a project decades in the making.

City of Indianapolis officials voted overwhelmingly this week—first on Monday at the City-County Council and then, on Wednesday, at the Metropolitan Development Commission—to authorize the creation of a flood control improvement district in the area between the White River and the Central Canal, which would help fund the construction of a new levee along the White River.

The City-County Council voted 21-1 to create the district, which will encompass more than 550 land parcels along West 52nd Street, West 53rd Street, West 54th Street and Riverview Drive, and the intersecting north-south streets, and eventually enable them to lose their flood plain designations. 

The MDC’s vote was unanimous in favor of the proposal. The city will now start designing final plans for the levee, which will need additional city approvals later this year.

The progress is a long time coming: In 1996, the town of Rocky Ripple requested not to be included in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to build a levee along the White River because it would have destroyed homes in their area. Now, 23 years later, something is finally happening, said Dan Parker, director of the city’s Department of Public Works.

“I remember this fight back from when I worked for Gov. [Evan] Bayh,” Parker said. Parker's current boss, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, was Bayh’s campaign manager when Bayh was elected governor in 1988.

The flood control improvement district would act much like a tax-increment finance district: It would capture new property tax revenue from included properties and use that revenue to fund construction and maintenance of a levee to be built along the White River to withstand and protect nearby properties.

Much of the Rocky Ripple, Broad Ripple, Warfleigh and Butler-Tarkington areas are in a 100-year flood plain, which means there is a 1% chance of a flood in any given year. Such a flood could be especially devastating to Rocky Ripple.

By building the new levee, enabling the properties to come out of the flood plain, residents wouldn’t have restrictions on improving their properties. Removing the designation would also likely increase property values, and residents would no longer have to carry flood insurance. It would also enable about 200 undeveloped parcels in Rocky Ripple to eventually be developed.

“The value of the land is depressed because of the flood plain designation,” Parker said. “It’s not that the land doesn’t have value; the flood plain is depressing the value. That’s how it ends up funding itself. All of that increment [that would be generated] goes into the district.”

According to the Indianapolis North Flood Damage Reduction Project, major flooding along the White River in Indianapolis has occurred 10 times since the Great Flood of 1913.

“If we had a 1913 equivalent, the town of Rocky Ripple would be under 20 feet of water” if the levy is not constructed, Parker said. 

Midwest floods in 2019 have “put a little more urgency” on the project's importance, he said. Rocky Ripple’s current levee is “only built to a 20-year flood elevation.”

The flood control district for Rocky Ripple is similar to one approved last year for the Warfleigh neighborhood. It was authorized by legislation passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 2018 providing for the “establishment of a special fund to be used for the planning, design, construction, operations and maintenance of local flood control works and activities that specifically benefit special flood hazard properties,” according to the city’s Department of Public Works.

The majority of commenters on Wednesday at the MDC meeting spoke in favor of the plan, while four spoke against it.

Carla Gaff-Clark, of the Rocky Ripple Town Council, said she was involved in 1996 when the town turned down being involved with the Army Corps of Engineers project because it would have destroyed too many homes in the neighborhood.

She urged the Metropolitan Development Commission to approve the proposal, stating, “We turned down the Army Corps of Engineers; we didn’t turn down flood protection.”

“I’m concerned about residents that live there now,” Gaff-Clark said. “320 houses and close to 800 people are in the flood plain.”

Butler University is in support of the plan and plans to contribute $3.65 million to it. Bruce Arick, Butler’s vice president of finance, said the university believes the plan will help protect 75 acres at the campus.

But Rocky Ripple homeowner Heather Liden said she disapproved of the plan’s encouragement of new development in the area as the result of the levy and flood control district.

The plan would “dramatically increase the number of people living in harm’s way,” she said.

She also criticized levees as being an “extremely outdated and unsound strategy.”

One resident, Whit Overstreet, said he would rather have an existing old levee be repaired rather than replaced. That would cost substantially less, he said. 

And while he acknowledged it wouldn’t provide even 100-year flood protection, it would provide “reasonable protection at a reasonable cost.” 

But Gaff-Clark said simply repairing the levee would result in about 70 homes being destroyed, something she said was undesirable. 

“We don’t want to see houses torn down,” Gaff-Clark said.

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