Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated that the Indiana Forest Alliance dropped their lawsuit against the DVA at the behest of Congressman Carson. A representative of his office confirmed that this was incorrect. Though he has been highly involved in the situation since the beginning, ethics regulations forbid his involvement in any litigation of this sort.
Community residents and local activists are keeping up their efforts to protect one of the city’s oldest forests.
In September of 2015, the Crown Hill Cemetery administration sold a 15-acre plot of land to the Department of Veterans Affairs for the purpose of constructing a columbarium to house the cremated remains of military veterans.
The plot is a unique one, as it is home to one of the state’s last remaining old-growth forests, an area known as the North Woods.
Carleen Carter, a longtime resident of the neighborhood and president of the Crown Hill Neighborhood Association, said many of her neighbors have fond memories of the woods and were shocked to learn last summer that the area was in danger of being no more.
“It is my understanding that some of those trees are older than the state,” she said. Though the place she calls home has been subject to scrutiny over the years due to violence and economic issues, the lack of green space has been a major concern, as well. The forest, for her and other residents, is a much-needed feature in what she describes as an “asphalt jungle.”
Carter said residents were invited to a gathering held by Crown Hill Cemetery Inc. last summer to celebrate the new development that would be taking place. “I was happy to hear about (the veterans cemetery), but those of us in our neighborhood south of it did not recognize (the area they were referencing) because of the technicalities in how they put the info out. Had it not been for the Forest Alliance, we wouldn’t have recognized that it was in this area,” she said.
She and others joined forces with the Indiana Forest Alliance and local ecologists to see if there was a way to meet both needs — honoring veterans and preserving the land.
The plot has been the subject of past controversy. Nearly a decade ago, developers from Mann Properties had plans to turn 71 acres of Crown Hill land into a development with homes and retail shops, but after a huge public outcry in opposition, the Metropolitan Development Commission denied their rezoning request, killing the project.
Becky Dolan, a botanist from Butler University, shared that during this period there were attempts by various groups interested in conversation to raise funds to purchase the land themselves and turn it into a nature preserve or city park. Their efforts were quickly thwarted due to the economic downturn of 2008.
Dolan, who in a seemingly bizarre footnote to this saga was asked to pen a chapter on the majesty of the North Woods for a book published by Crown Hill in honor of their 150th anniversary, said that for several years she and her colleagues had been told by administrators of the cemetery that the historic land was not up for sale. She was shocked to learn that things had changed.
Jeff Stant, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance, said that past issues like the Mann example should have been enough to deter deals like the one between Crown Hill and the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) from being made.
“That woods has been called a pre-settlement forest, a forest that essentially was not cleared, when others were, during the development of the city. Essentially, ecologists and botanists have all issued opinions about it being a very rare remnant of the pre-settlement forest that covered this area of the state. That’s why it has been such a coveted piece of nature, because there isn’t anything left like this in the inner city,” he said.
“(DVA) did not consider other areas on Crown Hill’s property. No other cemetery in the city, including those that have military heritage sites, was considered either. The only site the V.A. looked at was this one. That raises a concern, because they are a federal agency, and they are supposed to follow federal environmental laws,” he continued.
The law Stant referred to is the National Environmental Policy Act, which in summary requires that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment. From Stant’s perspective, the parties in question did the bare minimum in meeting their federal requirements.
“They published two legal notices in the newspapers and posted the environmental assessment in some public libraries. That was the extent. Our point is that if they would have looked at the public record on this site, they would have seen volumes of public testimony in public tribunals saying, ‘Don’t develop these woods.’ And that would have illuminated their decision-making,” he said.
Stant, Carter, Dolan and many others have petitioned legislators and elected officials such as Congressman Andre Carson, Congresswoman Susan Brooks and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett to make public statements on their behalf. The group dropped their lawsuit, filed in December against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Recently, the Dr. Laura Hare Charitable Trust (LHCT), a private environmental foundation, presented the DVA with an offer to purchase the Crown Hill plot from them and cover all related expenses accrued from finding an alternative spot.
Despite these actions, last month Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court of Southern Indiana denied a request made by the group to halt progress. Unless a circuit court steps in, construction may begin very soon.
“Everyone agrees that an expanded veterans cemetery is a great project,” said Dolan. “The question is in the details, the location, and there are so many places where that project would be an improvement to the landscape, the neighborhood, and this is just the wrong site.”
When asked about the possibility of considering alternative locations and the process through which the public was notified about the current proposal, the DVA in a 311-word written statement said it “takes seriously the concerns of local community members and groups regarding the preservation of trees at the Crown Hill site for the planned columbarium-only national cemetery in Indianapolis. In response to what we learned through the public engagement process, NCA instructed the Army Corps of Engineers to revise the site plan to preserve as many mature trees as possible while permitting VA to meet the burial needs of over 250,000 Veterans and families who reside in the Indianapolis metropolitan area.”