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Farmers concerned about plans for large Indiana industrial park

NEW CARLISLE, Ind. — Ken Sebasty Sr. has plenty of other acres to farm, but the land he cherishes most is within the footprint of a huge industrial park on the drawing board outside New Carlisle.

The 85-year-old Sebasty doesn’t want to part with the 1,000 acres he started farming close to 60 years ago, or his residence. His home is on the fringe of the proposed boundaries.

He said it wouldn’t be as easy as it looks to simply move that portion of his operation somewhere else. Not only do his roots run deep there, he said the land, more than two miles in length, is already irrigated and draws from a vast water supply that might not exist somewhere else.

“We want to stay where we’re at,” he said.

About 130,000 acres of mostly farmland is targeted for economic growth under a proposed revision of a 10-year master plan that could be adopted by St. Joseph County officials by the end of the year. The area is between the Michigan state line to the north and Kankakee River to the south and east from the LaPorte County line to the U.S. Highway 20 bypass.

Farmers within the proposed boundaries are concerned their land through eminent domain will be taken at a price less than what it would cost to replace the ground and, if they stay, of being squeezed by factories and other growth.

‘’I don’t think you would be fairly compensated for everything,’’ said Corey Jesswein, who raises corn and soybeans and about 30 head of cattle on 2,500 acres. He explained a good chunk of the land he farms is within the boundaries marked for development.

“What happens, happens, I suppose. But, I sure wouldn’t like to see it out here.”

St. Joseph County Economic Development Director Bill Schalliol said 22,000 acres would be reserved for industrial growth under the current draft. The remaining acreage would be for residential and possibly commercial development, to meet demand from workers that would be employed at the prospective new companies.

He said eminent domain would only be exercised to acquire easements for running public infrastructure such as water and sewer lines or a rail line to the development sites. He said it’s legally “almost impossible” to acquire private property through eminent domain for use by other private entities.

Either way, landowners fear they might have to sell just to avoid being surrounded by what could be rapid growth. Schalliol said talks have already been held with some farmers, and offers are attractive enough for some to consider selling.

Others didn’t budge. “We’ve had some pretty clear responses from some generational farmers, and we certainly respect that. Unless somebody changes their mind, those properties would always stay as an agricultural use,” Schalliol said.

Butch Zeigner doesn’t have to worry about selling the 104 acres he uses for raising corn, soybeans and pumpkins a couple of miles to the east, at Indiana 2 and Cougar Road. He is concerned about bringing in more traffic to an area he views as already too congested.

Zeigner said traveling the highway with many fast-moving semis is challenging enough, but crossing all four lanes in a combine or any long piece of farm machinery is especially hazardous.

“There’s more traffic now than we need,” he added.

Schalliol said planners are working with the Indiana Department of Transportation on long-term strategies to resolve at least some of the traffic-related issues. “We got intersections that need significant upgrades,” he said.

He said heavy interest in the property is driven partially by the supply of energy going up from the recent opening of a natural gas-powered generating station.

Some of the acres Jesswein farms are in LaPorte County and Berrien County, Mich., so if he’d still have enough if some of his land went for development. “It wouldn’t put us out of business, but it would be enough to kind of complicate things.”

Sebasty raises mostly corn and soybeans but grows other crops like peppermint and spearmint. He has considerably more ground close to places like Walkerton, North Liberty and Galien, Mich. But he wants the soil he first started farming and raised his family on to remain with his children, grandchildren and beyond.

“It’s going to be hard for me to step aside. I’ll tell out that. I put my whole life into the development of our farm operation and when you give it up, you’re giving up an awful lot,” he said.

The first in a series of public meetings was held June 21. Schalliol said the next one has not been scheduled but should be toward late summer or early fall.