By Thomas P. Healy
On March 13, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that work at Crown Hill was “temporarily on hold” while the agency assessed its plans.
Work crews had established a construction entrance in the days prior to the announcement. Protestors who sought to stop the project gained access to the site, climbed trees and dragged branches to block the entrance.
In a March 8 social media post, Mayor Joe Hogsett called for a federal agency to stop work on a wooded area within Crown Hill Cemetery he calls “Indianapolis’ largest old growth forest.”
“I feel a deep sense of responsibility to be responsive to the public’s alarm about the future of the [Crown Hill] Woods. As such, I am calling upon the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to halt their efforts to develop the site. My dream would be for these Woods to become part of the City’s park system.”
According to Jessica Schiefer, a public affairs officer with the VA’s National Cemetery Administration in Washington, D.C., the mayor has not communicated directly with the VA. “Contractors will begin site work in the next few weeks and construction later this spring in order to meet the goal of opening for first interments in the fall of 2018,” she said.
Schiefer said VA contractors will not remove trees after April 1 but will still be on site at that time. “We will ensure we eliminate hazards to the bat species as outlined in the Indiana Department of Natural Resources environmental assessment,” she added.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs purchased the 14.75-acre site from Crown Hill Cemetery Inc. for $810,000 in September 2015. It is slated to be part of the VA’s “Urban Initiative” to serve 256,000 veterans who live within a 75-mile radius of Indianapolis.
Mayor Hogsett’s post continued, “I have been receiving an outpouring of calls and messages from people in Indianapolis who are alarmed about the danger facing the Crown Hill North Woods.” Protests began in late 2016, led by the Indiana Forest Alliance after members realized they had missed an opportunity to comment on the project during the mandatory 30-day public comment period in September 2016.
The VA has met numerous times with protestors and modified its plans accordingly. Initially, critics charged that the VA was planning to “clear-cut” the site. When the VA responded that clear-cutting was not part of the plans, opponents decried the loss of large diameter trees. The VA responded by modifying its design to retain all mature trees measuring 40 inches in caliper (diameter) and 73 percent of 30″-39″ caliper trees. This led opponents to lament ecosystem destruction.
Concerns also led the Laura Hare Charitable Trust (LHCT) to make an offer to purchase the land from the VA in November 2016. In his March 3 response to the offer, Glenn Powers, Deputy Under Secretary for Field Programs and Cemetery Operations at the VA wrote, “We do not seek to negotiate a land exchange with the LHCT.” [PDF]
Though Powers didn’t mention it in his letter, U.S. Code prescribes the manner in which a government agency can dispose of property it considers surplus:
(b) Assignment of Space or Lease or Sale of Property.—
(1) Actions of administrator.—When the President, on the recommendation of the Administrator of General Services, or the federal agency having control of any real property the agency acquires that is located outside of the District of Columbia, other than military or naval reservations, declares the property to be surplus to the needs of the agency, the Administrator—
(A) may assign space in the property to any federal agency;
(B) pending a sale, may lease the property for not more than 5 years and on terms the Administrator considers to be in the public interest; or
(C) may sell the property at public sale to the highest responsible bidder on terms and after public advertisement that the Administrator considers to be in the public interest. (Emphasis added)
Powers concludes his letter by writing that the VA plans to move forward in a timely fashion on the project.