TERRE HAUTE — Within four months, a new Vigo County Jail will be completed, with inmates moving from the current jail to the new facility within six months.
“So the next step is to decide what to do with the old jail,” Commissioner Chris Switzer said Tuesday during the board’s weekly meeting.
“Whether that is repair, remodel and move people into it or see if it is structurally unsafe and just tear it down,” Switzer said, saying commissioners are looking for companies to give proposals.
Commissioners Brendan Kearns said he would like the board to issue a formal request for proposals. Commissioners instructed the county attorney to issue a request for proposals. Kearns said the plan has been to move the county’s E911 department from the basement of the current jail to the ground floor, which has windows.
After the meeting, Kearns said that while he was on the Vigo County Council, he advocated the current jail building be torn down. However, now as a county commissioner, he said he has to consider factors such as a holding place for inmates brought to the county courthouse and keeping the county’s E911 department in a building in which the county has invested more than $100,000 in new equipment.
“In the early days when we were looking at the jail, commissioners were saying how bad it is and I did say back then it is an albatross, let’s just level it and turn it into green space.
“Now, as a commissioner, I have to look at what is the best use of that. I don’t think it will be an easy deal to gut it and turn it into storage by any means, because that is one thing we are shy on now is storage. We need places to securely store documents,” he said.
“These are things I was critical of when serving on the County Council, and now that I am in this seat, I have to look at things a little differently. The three of us are working together to figure out what the best use will be, but personally, I am in no hurry. We have to focus on getting the new jail open and that we have a safe transition,” Kearns said.
“I think the priority right now is getting the 911 department into a better area.”
In another issue, commissioners in September announced plans to create a public launch site for kayaking along Otter Creek. A proposed launch site would be created in the county’s right-of-way. That site would initially be a construction preparation site for a new bridge project on Hasselburger Avenue over the creek.
However, Vigo County resident Cindy Rothrock is voicing opposition. She owns about 1,000 acres, with about 1 mile of that property touching Otter Creek. That riverfront land is now owned under Broadacres Farm LLC., with her brother and two cousins. That property is about half mile downstream from the bridge on Hasselburger Avenue.
Rothrock said under Indiana law, she owns to the middle of the creek, and if someone owns land on both sides of the creek, they own land all the way through the waterway.
“I understand that commissioners are trying to make it public access, but it is currently privately owned,” she told commissioners, adding after the meeting, that “as private landowners, we have exclusive fishing rights.” Rothrock said she thinks additional public access would harm the ecosystem of Otter Creek.
County Attorney Michael Wright said in regard to public access, “Otter Creek is a waterway of Indiana. It is recognized waterway. We understand what you believe are your property rights concerning Otter Creek. I understand the property line extending to the middle of Otter Creek. I think this is being assessed from a usability standpoint and eventually a decision will be made concerning the long-term prospect for that (kayak launch) project.”
Wright added that under Indiana law, “it is permissible for people to be on Otter Creek within the confines of the law.”
Rothrock said public access would be similar to taking land but not identical.
“Nobody is taking any land,” Wright said. “There is no attempt by the county or any other entity to try to take any land. What has been discussed is establishing a parking lot in a recognized right of way that the county has because of the bridge that goes over Otter Creek and allow the public to access that waterway, understanding that, yes, Otter Creek is not a navigable waterway that most people would be accustomed to with boat launches and things like that.”
Commissioner Kearns said under state law, navigable waterways are public. Otter Creek is considered a non-navigable waterway, but the water and everything in it is still accessible to the public.
“We can legally paddle Otter Creek now without any legal issues,” he said. “If a landowner wants to charge somebody with trespassing, which I think is weird, you can do it if somebody falls out of a kayak and their foot hits the ground. As soon as that moment occurs, that is where the trespassing occurs as it currently stands,” Kearns said.
“With that said, I need to be charged with multiple counts of trespassing as a guy that walks with his daughter down the middle of Otter Creek to go bottle hunting, crayfish hunting, treasure hunting and fly fishing. So I guess from now on I will stop walking in Otter Creek and enjoying Otter Creek,” Kearns said.
Rothrock said taxpayers who own land would be impacted and loose use of their land.
Kearns countered, saying Rothrock “is in a conservation program, that you took farmland at $56 an acre down to $1 an acre (for tax assessment purposes), so if there is any adverse impact to the taxpayers ... that is one hell of a hit to the county,” he said. “This is not a tax issue. Having an estimated 100 kayaks a year go down Otter Creek will not adversely impact anything there.
“Otter Creek is open to the public now, the challenge is where can they launch,” Kearns said. “We have a public parcel that people can use, but you can’t park a car and access it easily now.”
Rothrock countered, saying, “If you put in a public access, the public can do what they want. There is no way to monitor that,” she said. Kearns responded, saying, “There is no way to monitor anything like that; people are people.”
Kearns said opening up a public area helps to stop illegal activity, such as methamphetamine labs.
“The baddies are less apt to go out to those areas ... because there are people in that area,” Kearns said.
“We just feel it is a bad idea to allow public access on private ground,” Rothrock said. “They can float the waterway, but I feel (Otter Creek) is not really navigable enough to even float without having to step out of your kayak or your boat without touching land. When you touch land, you are trespassing,” Rothrock said.
Commissioner President Mike Morris, in reference to public access to waterways, asked Rothrock if the county should stop access to Otter Creek at Markle Mill Dam Park.
“So we should shut down Markle Mill Dam as well?,” Morris asked.
“You already got a public spot right there,” Rothrock said.
“Should we eliminate all public access to that creek? Is that what you are advocating?,” Morris asked.
“Once you leave the boundaries of that (public access at Markle Mill Dam Park), then you are on private land,” Rothrock said.
“It is your creek, is that is what you said?” Morris said.
“The part that flows through out property is included in our property,” Rothrock said.
Kearns said Indiana has a new designation for waterways called a recreational waterway. Kearns said he intends to pursue this avenue for the public access site on Otter Creek.
“I am researching what that is and what the process is,” Kearns said, after the meeting, of the recreational waterway designation. “But right now in a non-navigable waterway, you can be on it, but your feet can’t touch the ground. If you do, then if a person wants to file trespassing charges, I guess they can do that, which I think is bananas.”
Rothrock, after the meeting, said there are more than 60 landowners along the river.
“We, as the landowner, will continue to pay the taxes on it, but then it is opened to the public to use it how they want to use it,” she said.