A judge has given the Indiana Transportation Museum until July 12 to vacate its longtime home at Forest Park in Noblesville.
In an order issued Friday, Hamilton Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Felix denied a request by the transportation museum, which has occupied about 10 acres in Forest Park since the 1970s, for a preliminary injunction to delay its eviction.
The museum filed suit in Hamilton Circuit Court in early May against the city of Noblesville and the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority after the city chose not to renew the museum’s lease for the space and gave ITM until June 1 to move out.
Museum leaders argued the city’s timeline wasn’t reasonable and asked the judge to give them 18 months to two years to move their property from the site.
The museum has a memorandum of understanding to move to Logansport, about 60 miles from Noblesville, but museum officials say it will take time to safely move and preserve 78 historic train cars and engines, several buildings including the historic Hobbs Station, and more than three miles of track and switches.
They also asked the court to require the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority to give the museum access to the rail line to move equipment.
The judge denied those requests and ordered the transportation museum to immediately vacate the site. On July 13, the city will be granted possession of the property to clean up whatever property remains, if it chooses to do so.
“The lease has expired, and ITM has no valid right to continue to occupy the premises,” the order states. "Indeed because the city is seeking to evict ITM from the premises, ITM is considered a trespasser."
Noblesville spokesperson Robert Herrington told IBJ there are several privately owned train cars on the property, and the city will work to ensure they get returned to their owners or safely moved to another site.
The city will assess the property June 13 to determine what steps need to be taken to restore it, he said.
“The order speaks for itself and is very clear and transparent,” the city said in a written statement. "We are very pleased with the court’s order and believe it is the right ruling and in the public’s best interest. The property is a mess but will be restored in a safe and efficient manner. The city will continue to hold ITM responsible for any environmental issues remaining at the site.”
In May 2017, the city accused the museum of violating the terms of its lease after discovering leakage of chemicals on the grounds of the museum in Forest Park and called in the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to investigate.
Museum officials said they disagreed with the ruling.
“We are disappointed in the decision by the court for not protecting a private not-for-profit enterprise against unlawful seizure of assets,” transportation museum chair John McNichols said in written comments. “Today the public has witnessed a systematic government intervention into private enterprise and the destruction of an institution which has served the public for more than 50 years.”
“Today the Indiana Transportation Museum is the victim," McNichols added. "Tomorrow it could be another museum, not-for-profit or private business. The next day it could be your home taken in an eminent domain land grab to benefit developers. We thought that we could get a fair trial in Hamilton County. We are uncertain what the next steps are for the Indiana Transportation Museum but are disappointed in the decision in favor or the City.”
The lawsuit followed years of fighting between the governments that own the track, the port authority that manages the rail, and the transportation museum.
About two years ago, the port authority ordered the museum to halt its Indiana State Fair train — one of its most popular excursions — from Noblesville to the state fairgrounds because the port authority said the tracks were unsafe.
Before the issue could be resolved, Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County leaders announced plans to remove a 9.2-mile section of the rail and turn it into a pedestrian trail.
Then, the port authority ended its longtime agreement with the transportation museum to operate at Forest Park and picked a new operator for the tracks. An agreement with Nickel Plate Heritage Railroad Inc. to operate a tourism rail line from Atlanta to Noblesville was finalized in April.