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Is I-65 project in legal slow lane?

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The state is working to settle lawsuits with three Greenwood property owners to buy land for an Interstate 65 exit at Worthsville Road.

In February, five property owners hadn’t agreed to sell, delaying the project for a year. The new interchange on Worthsville Road originally was to open in the summer of 2015, but now construction won’t even start until next year.

Currently, the Indiana Department of Transportation has three ongoing lawsuits asking for court orders to force property owners to sell their land. In all, the state needed to buy 15 properties for the interchange project, including three with homes on them.

Two owners are working to settle outside court, rather than have a judge order them to accept prices set by court-appointed appraisers. Another settled out of court this week, and a fourth is fighting the state’s decision to take the property using eminent domain, or forcing the landowner to sell.

If a judge decides the properties are necessary for state use, the landowners who don’t agree on a selling price will be required to sell the properties needed for the new interchange through the eminent domain process.

Court-appointed appraisers decide how much a property is worth, and the state can pay the amount the appraisers determine is fair and take the land.

The state has to purchase about 50 acres, including the three homes that will have to be demolished, to make room for the new interchange. The exit will become a new entrance into Greenwood, and city officials have planned what they want the area to look like when it is developed. Construction on the new exit now is slated to begin in the spring of 2015.

The city annexed about 1,800 acres around the future interchange, and plans for the new part of Greenwood include high-end houses, offices and restaurants that serve locally grown food. Currently, most of the property is farmland, but the city expects the area to develop once the interchange is built, and officials want to guide that development.

Landowners Vineyard Community Church and resident Don Devore of Greenwood both are negotiating land sales instead of going through the eminent domain process after lawsuits were filed.

Devore got a purchase offer for his land off Worthsville Road in July but asked for a higher price than the $124,300 the state wanted to pay. He is losing his home of 43 years, two barns and a garage to the new I-65 interchange.

His family has owned the 35-acre crop farm for more than 100 years, and the state is taking at least 5 acres of it. Devore’s property is still in the eminent domain process, and the case could still go to a jury trial, his attorney, Dustin Huddleston, said. The attorney declined to comment on details of the case.

The church is working on a deal to accept a price similar to the state’s first offer of $52,200 for about 2 acres. The church turned the offer down initially because the state wasn’t going to permit church members to use a gravel drive on the property for anything but farm traffic, church attorney Larry Furnas said.

The driveway is close to where the interchange will be, but the church wants to use it for only about the next four years, or until it builds a new building on the property with a different driveway, he said. The state is agreeing to the request, which means that neither the state nor the church will have to build a new, nearly quarter-mile-long gravel driveway on another side of the property.

Currently, the church rents about 40 acres to a farmer to plant crops and uses the other 12.5 acres for children to play soccer and baseball and to host large events, such as outdoor church services.

The interchange will make Vineyard Community Church very accessible to its members, and the church supports the project, Furnas said.

Edward Wilde Jr. of Needham, who owns property at 1602 E. Worthsville Road, recently agreed on a selling price for his land. He had turned down an offer of $115,000 for his property, which has a rental house on it. The offer was less than the amount he owes on the property and less than other properties in the area recently sold for, he said in letters to Johnson County Superior Court 1.

Because Wilde rented the home to tenants, he has now lost rental income that the state isn’t repaying him for, according to one of his letters. He also fought the $120,000 price court-appointed appraisers later listed.

A jury trial for the case was scheduled for Oct. 14, but Wilde recently agreed on a price of $138,000. The bank with the mortgage on the property is getting $118,367, and Wilde is earning $19,633, according to papers the state filed with the court Thursday. The case is now closed.

The property owners who have not come to agreements with the state are Devore and a group of owners in Illinois — Michael Wachstetter, Norman Wachstetter and Marcy Taylor.

The state offered $307,100 for the property owned by the Wachstetters and Taylor, which the owners didn’t accept. Since they turned down the offer, the state is taking four sections of the 38 acres through eminent domain and has asked the court to appoint appraisers to set the price for the property.

The owners responded Wednesday, filing a document saying that the state is buying the pieces of land piecemeal and hasn’t explained the benefits to the rest of the property of doing so. They also said the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the case because it did not properly notify each owner about the lawsuit.

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