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Demolitions of abandoned homes in Gary

An abandoned home is demolished Feb. 29, 2016, in the 1200 block of Taft Street in Gary. The House Environmental Affairs Committee voted Wednesday to allow an exception for the city to site a disposal and recycling facility for construction and demolition waste just 600 feet from residences.

INDIANAPOLIS — A state law prohibiting landfills from locating within a half-mile of Lake County homes soon may include a carve-out for Gary, to allow a disposal and recycling facility for construction and demolition waste be sited just 600 feet from residences.

City officials told members of the House Environmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday that without the exemption provided by House Bill 1318 it will be considerably more costly to carry out the planned demolition of some 6,000 abandoned homes in what once was Lake County's most populous city.

B.R. Lane, speaking on behalf of Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, said the site won't be a traditional landfill for general waste, but rather a place to hold reclaimed building materials, such as brick, stone and wood, until they can be reused, recycled or permanently disposed of.

"Twenty percent of the homes in Gary are vacant and slated for demolition," Lane said. "If that ... is recycled and captured in the city, that is a significant economic impact to us."

In a letter Lane read to the committee, Freeman-Wilson said it costs approximately $7,000 to demolish an abandoned house and up to $100,000 for an unused commercial building.

"The ability to reduce the cost of demolition by eliminating the cost of C and D (construction and demolition) disposal represents a cost savings of $4,000 per single home, or $26 million, with additional cost-savings for commercial structures," Freeman-Wilson said.

"In the face of a $10 million budget deficit, this would assist the city in solving a critical problem."

Freeman-Wilson and Lane provided few additional details about the city's landfill plan.

The mayor indicated she envisions the disposal site operating as a "public-private partnership," and said approval of the legislation "would allow Gary to negotiate for the best deal."

She also said a location "hasn't necessarily been determined," and insisted that city zoning rules will ensure the landfill does not pose an environmental threat to local residents.

Official support for proposed project

The sponsor of the measure, state Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago, whose hometown suffered a lead contamination issue that forced hundreds of residents from their homes, reaffirmed that commitment.

"We were very concerned and had that conversation to make sure nothing toxic, nothing dangerous would be put into the site," Harris said. "This was a big issue for us."

State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, also endorsed the proposal as a way for Gary to help itself as it goes about the task of revitalizing the community.

"This is something that's sorely needed for the city of Gary," Brown said. "We just need to get things in motion again and try to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Gary."

No one opposed the measure at the committee hearing. It's not known, however, how many local supporters and opponents were unable to get to the Statehouse on Wednesday due to icy roads across Indiana.

One opponent, the Rev. Marie Siroky, an associate minister at Gary's Trinity United Church of Christ, said in a letter to the committee that siting a landfill close to Gary homes, particularly in a region that's already had difficulties managing existing waste disposal sites, is "environmental racism."

The panel nevertheless voted 12-0 to advance the legislation to the full, Republican-controlled House for a decision, likely next week, on whether to send the proposal to the Republican-controlled Senate for further review.

State Rep. Dave Wolkins, R-Warsaw, the committee chairman, said he would prefer to eliminate altogether the half-mile landfill buffer that only applies to Lake County residences.

However, he ultimately withdrew an amendment to that effect after Harris, Brown and others said doing that likely would kick up insurmountable opposition to the Gary project from other Lake County residents who don't want landfills located near their homes.

The legislation likely still will be changed as it currently requires the city of Gary's finances be under the supervision of the Distressed Unit Appeals Board as a condition of receiving the landfill location carve-out.

Harris said that was not his intent and is planning an amendment.

DUAB provided Gary temporary relief from the state's property tax caps between 2009 and 2011. The board currently oversees the state-appointed emergency manager operating the Gary Community School Corp.

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Statehouse Bureau Chief

Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.