The Fort Wayne City Council narrowly approved a purchase agreement Tuesday for the vacant North River property north of downtown.
The purchase agreement, approved in a 5-3 vote, went hand-in-hand with an environmental indemnification for the property's current owners to absolve them of liability for any environmental cleanup costs necessary for future development.
There are several entities interested in the property, including the Headwaters Junction roundhouse and railroad attraction.
Lutheran Health Network previously expressed interest in the property, across from Science Central on North Clinton Street, but withdrew shortly after city officials announced the purchase agreement.
The city announced plans this month to buy the 29-acre site for $4.63 million from the Rifkin family, who are the property's current owners. The purchase agreement expires at the end of the month, and city officials plan to close on the property by Friday.
In a statement late Tuesday, mayoral spokesman John Perlich reiterated Mayor Tom Henry's support for the project.
“We're pleased with tonight's outcome on North River. Having control of the property is important to ensure a viable private development in the future,” Perlich said. “We're encouraged to be moving forward.”
Although it was ultimately approved, most City Council members made it clear they were not happy with the terms of the agreement. Much of the concern from the council stemmed from two aspects of the negotiation: the short notice approval request and the fact that neither City Council nor the public was allowed to review the results of a 2007 environmental study performed on the site.
City officials could not reveal specific details about the findings because of an existing non-disclosure agreement with the Rifkin family, which currently owns the land.
Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th, described the deal as a “swindle” and an “affront” to the nine sitting council members.
“(The Rifkins) chose to strong-arm this council, because we're the nine people who have to vote on this sight unseen in terms of hard numbers,” Hines said.
“I think this is probably one of the worst-negotiated contracts I've ever seen come before us when you allow the seller, in this case the Rifkins, to strong-arm you into indemnification with the purchase and confidentiality for the council members.”
The current owners also declined to allow council members to review the findings, even after two councilmen offered to sign a confidentiality agreement to be able to do so.
“I would be happy to sign a non-disclosure agreement, something I have done dozens of times, something that is well within my former professional career and my reputation precedes me on handling confidential and sensitive items,” said Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd.
“But at this point, I don't think I can support this without that.”
In response, Jon Bomberger, an attorney with Faegre Baker Daniels representing the city, told Jehl that there was a provision in the purchase agreement that would permit council members access to the findings. However, each member who reviewed the material would have to sign the non-disclosure agreement and the indemnification.
Councilmen Paul Ensley, R-1st; Tom Didier, R-3rd; Geoff Paddock, D-6th; Tom Freistroffer, R-at large; and John Crawford, R-at large, voted to approve the purchase agreement.
Jehl and Hines were joined by Councilman Jason Arp, R-4th, in opposition.
Councilman Michael Barranda, R-at large, voted against the agreement during the preliminary vote earlier in the evening but was absent during final passage.
“It will be the taxpayers, not the Rifkins that will be held accountable for their environmental contamination and if this vote were to pass tonight, it will be council that failed to hold this administration accountable for bringing together a better deal to this table,” Barranda said.
“Assuming council finds acceptable the 11th-hour disclosure of this purchase agreement, an insult in its own right, there is absolutely nothing transparent about voting to indemnify for environmental contamination without knowing what that contamination entails,” he added.