VA hosts public meeting to discuss new site

A week ago, the Veterans Administration hosted a public meeting to present its proposed new site for its columbaria at Crown Hill Cemetery and to discuss the findings in its Draft Environmental Assessment and its proposed Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact (FONSI).

The meeting also symbolically represented the critical importance of “heart” i.e. passion and belief, and resolve in combatting wanton destruction of our natural landscape by a public agency.  This needed and beneficial end result would not have occurred if the community had not had the heart and resolve to press their case— seemingly against all odds. Over and over, at the outset, we were told that the destruction of the woodland was a “done deal” and too much time had passed negating any hope that the destructive plan could be reversed.

About a half dozen persons—most of them actively involved in the battle to move the site to the adjacent open field – spoke to offer comments and suggestions about how to develop the site in the most sensitive way, e.g. landscape buffering, minimal hardscape, and stormwater management. More on this in a later post.

Below are my written comments to the VA.  The public comment period is open until February 12th. The VA has not yet provided a site plan, but has promised to do so as the planning proceeds.

 

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To:  Juan Kays, Department of Veterans Affairs

From:  Clarke Kahlo, participant with the Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors (during both 2006-07 and 2016-17 battles), but commenting individually

Re:  Comments on new site selection (land swap) and Draft Environmental Assessment for VA’s cemetery expansion at Crown Hill Cemetery.

Date:  January 22, 2018

I’m very grateful to the Department of Veterans Affairs for re-examining and re-locating the site of the proposed columbaria.  I’m also appreciative of the efforts of several elected officials, and especially to Senator Joe Donnelly, for initiating a critical review.  Incoming VA Secretary David Shulkin’s willingness to re-assess the plan is also much appreciated.

Not to dwell on the regrettable past history, but, from my perspective, it needs to be said: that the community (i.e. the many protesters) was forced to expend many thousands of hours and significant financial resources, over an intense period of 8 months, to battle the initial ill-conceived plan. This level of effort, and some additional background history, warrants being put on the public record. Fortunately, common sense ultimately prevailed, and I’m both relieved and grateful. At the same time, as our dysfunctional national government currently tries to prevent another shut-down, I cannot help but wonder how many federal tax dollars were poured down the proverbial drain by the initial poor decision-making.

Regarding the Draft Environmental Assessment, to both enhance the columbaria and minimize impact, I believe the proposed facility should be well screened from view from the east and the north. This is simply good landscape design practice and would protect residential “feel” and thus sense of place and residential quality of life for the surrounding neighborhood.  It would also help to reduce street noise and create a defined sense of place on-site and thus enhance solemnity and serenity.  With the woodland to the west, there is opportunity to create a very serene setting.

Relatedly, Indianapolis has a low comparative national ranking for tree canopy, and this area of the city has experienced very significant tree losses in recent times.  Causes include the emerald ash borer infestation, extensive new building at Butler University, and the recent Army Corps’ of Engineers North White River levee tree-removal project, as well as the on-going private real estate development in Washington Township which has targeted the few remaining woodlots and potential park sites. Also, Crown Hill has been required to remove hundreds of mature ash trees due to the devastating EAB onslaught.

At page 9 of the Assessment, there is no mention of, or reference to, Crown Hill’s Keith Norwalk’s stated contention that “The neighbors wouldn’t want an eye-sore” at the proposed re-considered site.  This statement was made during a meeting between Mr. Norwalk and me on August 10, 2016 in response to my question as to why Crown Hill and the Veterans Administration had not selected the obvious open-field site (the now proposed site) instead of the heavily wooded tract which had been the subject of intense community opposition in 2006-07 when Crown Hill attempted to rezone the property for private commercial development.  I responded to his implausible claim by countering with the obvious truism that visual impact can be effectively reduced by good landscape design— e.g. adequate setbacks, earthen berms and tree plantings. He was unpersuaded.

During the ensuing 8 months of discussing this project with area neighborhood groups, I never heard any statement to the effect that “the neighbors wouldn’t want an eyesore” on that site purportedly created by a columbaria.

VA officials previously advised us that the reason for the selection of the wooded area instead of the open field was that “it was the only property offered for sale by the cemetery”.  It remains unclear to us why Crown Hill wasn’t willing to sell the open field, but it was obviously not related to any neighbors’ concerns. Perhaps it was to preserve the ability to lease the field for parking for the annual art fair at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, as it has previously done.  Or, as often suggested by others, perhaps it was motivated by a cynical attempt to eliminate the woodland and thus remove an impediment to future private development.  We may never know with certainty.

My family’s roots in Crown Hill extend back over 100 years.  Unfortunately I’ve learned that we cannot rely on the Cemetery’s current executive management or its governance for straight answers. I urge the Veterans Administration to exercise caution and circumspection in future dealings with Crown Hill.  As Crown Hill’s president has often instructed, the cemetery is an IRS-designated not-for-profit.

Yet in my opinion, and considering its close business/ownership relationship with Gibraltar Remembrance Services, LLC, like most private corporations engaged in the so-called death industry, Crown Hill is very much motivated by generating high revenues and profits and doesn’t necessarily seek to honor or sustain the public interest.

Apparently, the new site for the VA facility was included as a recommendation in the cemetery’s new Master Plan, which plan was apparently subsequently adopted by the Crow Hill board last summer or fall.

Last year, Crown Hill adopted a new Master Plan.  My several previous requests to Crown Hill for a copy of the Master Plan were ignored— even though I represented my nearby church in Crown Hill’s public plan-input meeting on August 9, 2016. (At that meeting, I questioned the preparation of a master plan AFTER Crown Hill’s decision to again decimate the north woods).  My most recent request (today) for a copy of the master plan was refused by Crown Hill’s president Keith Norwalk who wrote that the plan is “not in the public domain”.

I believe that the VA’s Amended Draft and Final Environmental Assessments should incorporate — and thus publicly disclose — the cemetery’s newly adopted Master Plan.  Since the new VA facility is proposed to be located within Crown Hill Cemetery, it seems appropriate for the VA to have reviewed the cemetery’s adopted Master Plan.  It’s hard to imagine that this has not already been a part of the VA’s review process— as due diligence and to seek to protect the public stake in the proposed facility.

Thank you for considering my comments. I trust that as the VA’s site plan takes shape, the community-at-large (and not just a few selected “stakeholders”) will be closely consulted for their input.

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