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A magistrate has ruled in favor of the City of Jeffersonville to take properties along Indiana Avenue between Eighth and Ninth streets via eminent domain, for a drainage project to eliminate historic flooding issues in the area. 

JEFFERSONVILLE — A planned city project expected to alleviate flooding issues around the Spring Street area in Jeffersonville has left some residents up in the air about where they will live, after a magistrate ruled in favor of the city on eminent domain.

Last fall, the Jeffersonville Redevelopment Commission approved a roughly $4 million project to install underground retention basins on property surrounded by Eighth and Ninth streets, and Indiana and Ohio avenues.

In October, the city filed civil action in court to start the process of eminent domain with several of the property owners in that area after they denied the city's first offers on purchasing the land. While the city was able to come to purchase price agreements with some of them, Jayesh Sheth, who owns the largest amount of property at the spot, has been holding out.

Last week, a Clark County magistrate ruled in favor of the city to take his properties, and ordered appraisals from three neutral individuals, the average of which will be what Sheth receives.

Jeffersonville city attorney Les Merkley said in a text message Friday that they hope to have control of the remaining properties within 30 to 60 days, and will begin the process of relocating tenants. He said about 14 residences total will be moved because of the project; four families have moved so far with about 10 remaining.

According to Indiana statute, the city has to not only compensate the owners during an eminent domain takeover, but also assist those residents affected by the move. The city has hired a relocation agent who will help them find new places to live; they will also be compensated for moving expenses and for rent for a certain amount of time.

Charles Minor, 66, is one of the affected residents. He moved into the 12-unit apartment building at Indiana Avenue and Ninth Street in May of 1990, just after it was built.

"I think I was the first one in the building," he said. "I'm 69 years old and didn't plan on moving anywhere else. It will be the first time I have to move in 30 years."

He said residents on the street had known something may eventually happen, but did not know when. Several years ago, homes across the street were razed for a different drainage project, one that didn't come to fruition.

"I knew eventually they were going to do it when they started taking all these houses," Minor said. "But they never would be definite with us on the date."

Naomi Franklin, who has lived on the block for nearly as long as Minor, said the neighborhood had "always been a family atmosphere."

That's where Karlisha James has lived for the past 16 years, raising her daughters, 18 and 10. Like her neighbors, she was surprised this week to learn her days living on Indiana Avenue would soon be ending.

"I did not know it was going down like that," she said, adding that she was nervous about how the compensation to residents would work.

Sheth, the property owner, was unable to be reached for comment by press time.

Project engineer Jorge Lanz, of Jacobi Toombs and Lanz, said such a system has been needed for decades — the area is the lowest point in the city, and high waters drain to the north through a pump station, rather than toward the river like much of the rest of the city.

He added that the cost is far less than other proposed projects in recent years.

"This is a problem that has been ongoing," Lanz said. "That is the optimum place to put an underground detention system because any flooding that occurs is now going to go into this underground system of pipes and not flood anybody."

The effects of the flood-prone area were most recently seen earlier this week, when residents of the lower 18 units at the M. Fine building at 10th and Springs streets were displaced after heavy rains flooded their units and surrounding streets. It was the fourth time within a year those residents had to stay in hotels due to flooding.

The project, a joint venture between the redevelopment commission and board of public works, is paid for by redevelopment and does not require approval by the city council, Merkley said. Neither does the council have to approve the use of eminent domain, which the board of public works has invoked.

"There's no question we need the property for a legitimate public purpose," Merkley said. "And we're pleased the court agreed so we can move forward working on the project to address the [draining] issues in the area as soon as possible."

While their vote wasn't required, some of the Jeffersonville City Council members were still surprised that they hadn't been tuned in to the project or the eminent domain actions being taken.

"For years there has been discussion about what to do with that whole area and there have been a lot of different proposals," said Jeffersonville City Council at-large member Nathan Samuel.

But with this one, he said he wasn't aware it was even being undertaken.

"That's a pretty major step, and it seems like it's pretty far down the road," he said.

Council member Dustin White, who represents the district in which the planned project will go, responded to questions via text message Friday.

"I'm not aware of the plan details or that it is anything more than an idea," he said. "If we are going to kick people out of homes, we should first approve the $3.5 million project with 22 apartments at Spring and Market streets."

Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore said while eminent domain is never the first thing anyone wants to pursue, sometimes it's necessary to help overall.

"It's for the common good of the people," he said. "There's some hardships and some tough decisions that need to be made, but if you're trying to improve the city, this is what needs to be done."

Aprile Rickert is the crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune. Contact her via email at aprile.rickert@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2115. Follow her on Twitter: @Aperoll27.

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