VA Evaluating Alternative Sites for Columbarium

by Thomas P. Healy

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is evaluating several alternative locations to 14.5 acres it purchased for a new columbarium on the grounds of Crown Hill Cemetery.

Lenore Tedesco, trustee of the Laura Hare Charitable Trust and spokesperson for its Crown Hill initiative, confirmed it has responded to the VA’s March 15, 2017, request for alternative site suggestions.

“There were several sites that we believe met the criteria outlined in the letter,” she said. “These were submitted to National Cemetery Administration within the timeframe requested.”

Tedesco declined to identify the site locations or to specify how many sites were submitted. “There were more than two and less than 10,” she said, calling the list “a series of strong alternative sites.” Tedesco added, “The ball is in their court to evaluate the sites to see if it meets their needs.”

Bruce Buchanan, owner and CEO of Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Centers, confirmed that two sites owned by the Washington Park Cemetery Association, a non-profit set up by his family in 1955, were offered to the Laura Hare Charitable Trust for consideration as alternative locations for the VA’s columbarium.

“We submitted both Washington Park East and Hamilton Memorial Park, which is on the border of Westfield and Noblesville,” he said. Buchanan had hoped to offer space at the firm’s Washington Park North location but couldn’t find sufficient excess property to meet the VA’s needs. “We couldn’t find a site that didn’t involve the removal of trees in the woods, which is part of what they [the Trust] are trying to avoid.”

Buchanan is confident the two parcels meet all of the VA’s stated requirements. He said his firm offered up commitments stipulated by the VA’s request.

In a March 22 statement, Ronald E. Walters, head of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, pledged to continue the agency’s engagement with the community.

READ MORE VA Statement on Crown Hill Columbarium

“If proposed alternative locations prove suitable for cemetery development, are comparable in size to the current one, and provide appropriate access for large funeral processions, I promise you we will give them a good hard look,” he wrote.

Walters’ reference to “alternative sites” reflects a series of communications between the VA and the Laura Hare Charitable Trust. In November 2016, the Trust offered to purchase the Crown Hill property and help the VA recover expenses related to the site. This offer was rejected by the VA March 3, as was a proposed memorandum of understanding (MOU) prepared by the Trust that outlines a land exchange involving other metro Indianapolis sites identified by the Trust as suitable for the VA’s needs.

READ MORE: VA Columbarium Update

On March 17, Glenn Powers, Deputy Under Secretary for Field Programs and Cemetery Operation for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, sent another letter to the Trust [PDF] and offered to review alternative sites that met the VA’s criteria of size, accessibility, and zoning.

The offer is likely due in part to outreach by Mayor Joe Hogsett, who spoke with Powers by phone prior to the VA’s March 17 letter.

According to Hogsett’s director of communications, Taylor Schaffer, “Our office, as well as the Parks Department and Office of Corporation Council, have been directly involved in these conversations” with the VA. The City is not participating directly in any site selection process, she said. “The City has never had and will likely not have any decision-making role in this process.”

In a social media post, the mayor expressed a desire for the parcel to become part of the City’s parks system. Schaffer said the Mayor indicated this could be a long-term goal. “There is no discussion of the City appropriating dollars at this time.”

Jeff Stant, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance, is pleased to hear that the VA is looking at alternative sites. “We are aware of multiple sites in Indianapolis and the surrounding area that meet the criteria in Mr. Walters’ statement and are hopeful that the VA will indeed genuinely give these alternative sites ‘a good hard look.’”

In his letter, Powers noted that the request was “exploratory in nature and does not reflect a change in VA’s current intention to proceed with development of the Crown Hill site.”

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