BROWNSBURG — Last December, local farmer Mike Starkey came home and found stakes out in his field.
He had no idea what was going on or who had authorized it, he said. So he made a few calls. He got an email from a county representative the next morning notifying him they were doing some soil boring on his property, he said. Come to find out, those stakes signified the start of what has become a battle between area land owners — including Starkey — and the county.
Although no official green light has been given, Hendricks County is planning to extend Ronald Reagan Parkway from County Road 600 North to I-65 North in Boone County -- cutting a path through Starkey's farm, as well as others. Despite the fact that the road project has not yet been approved, county officials have subcontracted out design of the project to American Structurepoint, an Indianapolis-based infrastructure engineering firm, and are in the process of acquiring several properties along the proposed route to build it.
"It is unbelievable that the commissioners have turned this project over to the county engineer who has sub-contracted out the work, and there is no oversight for what they are doing," Starkey said. "The county engineer is hired on. He is not an elected official for this county. But they (the commissioners) aren't engineers, so whatever this hired county engineer says is what's going to happen in our county."
For Starkey, there's a lot at stake. His farm is in the middle of a $4.5 million soil and water conservation project. The county's plan to add two retention ponds on his property would ruin that experiment and seriously diminish his farming operation, he says.
WHAT EXACTLY IS AT STAKE?
Starkey uses a rare method on his farm known as "no-till farming," which in essence means growing the crops from year to year without using any type of equipment to disturb the soil — that means no tilling or plowing.
What Starkey and several experts have found is by doing this type of farming, his farm's water output is much cleaner.
Several years ago, Citizens Water was dealing with a problem of algae blooms in Eagle Creek Reservoir, which is the main source of drinking water for Indianapolis. A stream that runs through Starkey's farm is the third largest stream of water into the reservoir, he said, and Citizens found it is cleaner than the others.
"That's because of the type of farming I do," Starkey said. "That's why we have all of this monitoring equipment on my land. This has become a project where they're getting data 24/7."
Actually, a lot of folks are analyzing the data. The experiment has become a partnership between the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Marion County Health Department, U.S. Geological Survey, Indiana State Department of Agriculture, Hendricks County Soil & Water Conservation District, Indiana University and Citizens Water. Several expensive monitoring systems were placed at specific points around the farm.
Last year, individuals from the Environmental Protection Agency came out to learn more about Starkey's no-till farming methods.
"They said, 'If you can give us this data on a 24/7 basis just showing that what you're doing is responsible for what we're seeing, we're going to take this and push it nationwide, because this is what we're looking for," he said. "I'm probably one of only a handful (of farms) in the whole nation that has this type of monitoring equipment."
So it's not just scientists and universities that are monitoring it. Politicians are, too. Several have been out to the farm for tours and presentations, Starkey said.
"This is a big deal," he said. "I have no problem having people come and observe this because this is what we need to promote and educate to other farmers internationally."
Just a couple weeks ago, several Chinese delegates visited the farm as part of a program organized by the Indiana Soybean Alliance.
"Internationally, people are hungry for this type of information," Starkey said. "It's pretty cool stuff. What they're seeing coming off my farm is lower in phosphorus and nitrate than what's in stream."
The goal with the project is to educate other farmers on how to do this type of farming, so that everyone can benefit from cleaner water around the world.
But if the county moves forward with the parkway expansion, Starkey fears it will ruin his soil, water output and, more importantly, the project.
Because the two retention ponds they want to dig out on his property will ruin 35 acres of his farmland.
"Where they want to put these ponds, the rest of the ground will be worthless to me," he said. "In between these (proposed) ponds, it would be impossible to farm."
He is frustrated because, in his opinion, the county is adding the retention ponds for the wrong reasons. One of the ponds being proposed is on high ground. In fact, it is the highest elevation on Starkey's property.
"How is water supposed to travel uphill? I asked one of the guys doing the soil boring about it and he looks at me like, 'Don't you get it?'" Starkey said. "I go, 'No, I don't get it.' Well they need your dirt to build the road. Oh, so they're putting retention ponds on my property and taking the dirt to build the road up and that's the reason they want this high ground — it provides the most dirt.
"But they won't admit it," he continued. "They can't go out and buy property for borrow pits. It's against the law. It's just like somebody going in your back yard and saying, 'Hey, we need your dirt to build this road.' But they can go out there and build a retention pond for drainage purposes to get my dirt."
But what's even more frustrating to Starkey is the lack of communication between the county and area land owners.
"It's really screwing up the drainage for our farms," he said. "Drainage is extremely critical for our farming operation. When they come through and put a road here, they're going to cut all the tiles up and then we'll never be the same. And the unbelievable part is the three major farmers here ... this is our heritage. This is what we do for a living. But what they're doing is taking all of that away from us for the extension of this road. And the way they have been going about doing it has been, 'We're going to do this regardless,' instead of working with us."
WHAT DOES THE COUNTY SAY?
During Tuesday morning's Hendricks County Commissioners' meeting, the commissioners signed a letter of support to apply for a grant that could help fund the Ronald Reagan Parkway expansion.
County Engineer John Ayers briefly discussed the project and the effect it would have on Starkey Farms.
"One point to keep in mind here is the intent to build this road was established five years before they began their study," Ayers told the commissioners.
They tabled the rest of the discussion until the next commissioners' meeting July 24. But County Surveyor David Gaston doesn't have much faith they'll be ready by then to present to the commissioners for approval of the road.
"The info here is voluminous," Gaston said. "We've got reams and reams of data. We're still in the process of reviewing everything to make sure we're in compliance. We're going to try to have it ready for review at the meeting in two weeks, but it might not be ready until August."
Gaston said although he sympathizes with Starkey, his job is to make sure all county projects are in compliance with county ordinances. So far, this one is, he said.
"But what I have told the Drainage Board is they have the authority to waive any of those ordinances," Gaston said. "I think Mike was pleased to hear that, but we're not going to tell the board where to put these retention ponds ... that's above my pay-grade. That is up to the project engineers."
Ayers said the project is currently under design and they are actively seeking funding. The commissioners have asked that he go ahead and begin work on the project.
"They want this thing designed and ready to go when (funding) becomes available," Ayers said. "Eventually it will get built one way or another, and it will be built soon. We are committed to building this road."
Ayers said the idea for the project was first brought up in 2006, which is when the county started its initial environmental assessment of it. It was approved by the Federal Highway Administration in 2011. They notified the public, several environmental agencies and the residents who might be affected if the road is built at that time, before the project on Starkey's farm ever began. Ayers said no individuals or agencies reached out to the county then.
"We don't want to build anything at the cost of any environmental impacts," he said. "But they knew what was going on."
As for the retention ponds, Ayers said the proposed locations have been reviewed by three engineering firms and Starkey's property is the best place for them.
"We look for natural drainage and the areas it flows through ... we try to get as close to the outlets as we can get," he said. "I get that one of the proposed ponds is on high ground. But when you look at a map and those drainage flows, that's just where it needs to be."
Ayers said the county has taken all the proper steps to get the road extension approved.
There is no timeline yet on when construction would begin, if it is approved.