VA expands tree preservation efforts at Crown Hill site

Rendering of revised site plan for the VA's columbarium that preserves mature trees. Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Association.

by Thomas P. Healy

In a continuing effort to respond to calls for tree preservation, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA) has released new renderings of its proposed columbarium within the grounds of Crown Hill Cemetery.

Rendering courtesy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

In a January 18 media statement, [PDF] the NCA reports: “We take 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.”

The NCA said it has revised its plan to retain groves of mature trees: “Specifically, this revised plan will retain and incorporate all mature trees measuring 40 inches in caliper (diameter) or greater. Additionally, the plan now retains 73 percent of 30–39 inch caliper trees, a 27 percent increase from the original design. This is in addition to the retention of wetlands areas and an extensive woodland buffer around all areas of planned development.”

The VA acquired the 14.75-acre wooded site in September 2015 to expand its National Cemetery presence in Crown Hill. According to Jessica Schiefer, a public affairs officer in the NCA’s Washington, D.C., office, the Crown Hill site was selected as one of five columbaria-only facilities around the country for inurnment of cremated remains. “Establishment of cremation-only facilities reflects growing Veteran preference for a cremation burial option,” she said, adding that 51.8 percent of NCA burials in fiscal year 2014 were cremations.

The VA’s announcement came shortly after a January 13 ruling (PDF) by Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, chief judge of the United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, that denied the Indiana Forest Alliance’s motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the VA from commencing site work.

Clearing of the site was scheduled to begin in mid-January and finish by April 1, when the federally protected Indiana Bat and the threatened Northern Long-Eared Bat begin roosting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is quoted in the VA’s Final Environmental Assessment (PDF) as saying that “[P]roviding no tree removal takes place between April 1 [and] September 30 the proposed action is not likely to adversely affect” bat habitat. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources has also requested to be kept informed as more detailed site plans become available so that staff can undertake additional environmental review.

While Judge Magnus-Stinson’s ruling did find that IFA had standing to file the motion, she disagreed with all of IFA’s major contentions. “[T]he IFA overlooks the limited scope of this Court’s administrative review, overstates the impact of the Project, and minimizes or even disregards the extensive process the Defendants [VA] utilized to solicit feedback and determine the environmental impact of the Project on the Property. . . . Additionally, despite bearing the burden to support its injunction request, IFA assumes the public interest element of the analysis in its favor—without proof—and completely ignores that Crown Hill National Cemetery is currently at capacity and cannot accept additional Veterans for burial. IFA also ignores that Defendants reviewed the environmental impact of the Project after soliciting feedback pursuant to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and made the decision to move forward with the Project after issuing a comprehensive analysis and making the report available to the public in various ways. IFA improperly asks this Court to second-guess that decision, which it cannot do within the context of administrative review. Because IFA has not met its burden to prove that a preliminary injunction is appropriate, its request must be denied.”

In her ruling, Judge Magnus-Stinson makes the following pointed observations. “IFA has not identified a substantial dispute as to the effects of the Project on the environment, such that Defendants’ decision to proceed with the Project is arbitrary or capricious. In fact, IFA’s position regarding the environmental impact of the Project is exaggerated. . . . The Court cautions IFA not to make unsupported, exaggerated assertions in future filings. . . .The Court is puzzled by IFA’s assumption that because the Project will result in trees being cut down, IFA need not present any evidence or develop an argument on the irreparable harm factor. This is particularly troublesome because the Project’s environmental impact is not nearly as significant as IFA alleges. The EA [Environmental Assessment] stated that the Project will use a ‘context sensitive design’ to ‘provide protection, in perpetuity, of many natural features in the woodland by retaining old growth trees.’ Moreover, Defendants have met with IFA since the FONSI [Finding of No Significant Impact] [PDF]and further modified the Project to save 70% of the larger trees on the Property.”

This is not the first time Judge Magnus-Stinson has had stern words for IFA. On December 22, the Court struck down IFA’s motion for preliminary injunction. [PDF] “The Court has twice directed the parties to its Practices and Procedures in advance of the anticipated preliminary injunction filing. . . . Plaintiffs have now filed their Motion for Preliminary Injunction, and they either did not read the referenced Practices and Procedures or they made no effort to comply with them.”

The Court continued: “Plaintiffs have asked the Court to ‘be mindful’ of their preference for a ruling on their injunction request by January 15, 2017. The manner in which they have cited to the record and uploaded their exhibits does not facilitate the Court’s review and would require the Court to spend time it does not have.”

IFA was ordered to file an amended motion and supporting brief “that comply with the Court’s Practices and Procedures and Local rules by noon on December 23, 2016.” The Court accepted the amended filing even though it was posted at 1 p.m. on Dec. 23. This amended filing was the one the Court considered before denying IFA’s motion.

In an email, IFA executive director Jeff Stant confirmed that his organization would file an appeal of the judge’s ruling. Asked if the organization’s position has changed, given the VA’s announcement of a significant reduction of tree removal on the site, Stant replied: “We are trying to save a presettlement forest, not trees of a certain size within that forest. Multiple arborists and forest ecologists who study old growth forests have advised us that the placement of the amount of infrastructure that the VA is proposing with this revised plan as well as the drainage of wetland soils that will be necessary to accommodate this infrastructure will likely result in the premature deaths of those trees that the VA is ‘saving.’”

IFA hosted two “peaceful pickets” outside Rep. André Carson’s Midtown office in the Julia Carson Government Center on Fall Creek Parkway on Jan. 26 and 27. IFA has lobbied Rep. Carson to intervene and stop the VA’s project from moving forward on the site. According to Jessica Gail, communications director for Rep. Carson, the congressman has met with representatives of both IFA and VA to discuss the proposed columbarium and the Hare Trust offer to purchase the site. [PDF] “The issue is that House ethics rules prohibit the Congressman from intervening in the purchase or sale of the property since it’s in litigation.” she said, adding, “It’s really in the hands of the VA.”

UPDATE: On Monday, February 14, the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association (BTNA) board of directors voted 14-1-1 in favor of a motion to send a letter of support for keeping the Crown Hill North Woods intact. According to BTNA president Clark Kirkman, two BTNA residents asked if they could speak at the meeting and were added to the agenda. “Neither of the two people who presented are employees of the IFA, although they may be affiliated in a volunteer capacity,” he wrote in an email. While a Veterans Administration representative was not at the February meeting, Kirkman said BTNA had hosted both sides of the issue at its October 2016 meeting. “The agenda item for February was, in my mind, BTNA residents asking for time at their neighborhood meeting, which was granted.’ He added, “There is no planned action by the board beyond this letter.”

Rendering courtesy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration.