Va, Crown Hill Reach Agreement to Save Old-Growth Forest

Va, Crown Hill Reach Agreement to Save Old-Growth Forest

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After a year-and-a-half battle involving tree-climbing protesters and lawsuits, the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed Friday not to build on a 15-acre plot of land in Crown Hill Cemetery that contains old-growth trees, some older than the state of Indiana.

The veterans affairs department said Friday that it would swap its plot of land for a similarly sized, adjacent plot on the Crown Hill grounds at West 42nd Street and Clarendon Road.

“It was important to us that we came up with an amicable resolution, and there were so many factors in each aspect of it that had to be considered,” said Keith Norwalk, Crown Hill Cemetery president. “It was a win-win for the (Indiana) Forest Alliance, our community and our veterans.”

The VA bought the land from the cemetery in September 2015 for $810,000 to build an above-ground memorial that would hold 2,500 veterans’ urns, with plans to later expand.

The Indiana Forest Alliance and other environmental groups who sought to preserve the forest protested the sale and the building plans.

When the VA said it would not budge, the environmentalists sought an injunction in December 2016 to halt the project, but a judge blocked the request a month later. In March, construction was put on hold after a group of protesters blocked the entrance to the forest. Construction has been on hold since.

“We deeply appreciate the feedback, cooperation and support that have enabled us to uphold our commitment to provide burial access to Veterans and their families, while being responsive to the concerns of local citizens as good neighbors,” interim Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Ronald E. Walters said in a statement Friday.

The new 14.75-acre plot is zoned for cemetery development, unlike the previous space, which contained wetlands and would require more hurdles to develop, Norwalk said.

“We have burial space in the cemetery available for the next 200 years,” Norwalk said. “We were looking very long term, but in the cemetery business, that’s what you have to do. We felt ultimately that this was the best solution, and it’s gratifying to be hearing from the other parties that were involved that it is a satisfactory resolution, so hopefully the project will move quickly.”

The news came as a relief to the Indiana Forest Alliance.

“We’re all thrilled that this excellent choice was made for the good so this awesome veterans memorial can be built and we can save our trees,” said director of communications Anne Laker. “We are now going to turn our sights toward how we can make sure this space becomes a nature preserve so that it really can be enjoyed by everyone.”

Laker attributed the deal to the work of Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., who mediated the debate behind the scenes.

“It says that creativity is required to solve problems,” she said. “It shows that our elected officials are listening.”

Donnelly reached out to VA Secretary Bob McDonald in September to urge the organization to listen and engage with community members who expressed concern over the forest.

“I am pleased that the VA and Crown Hill have come to an agreement to pursue a land swap that would allow the project to move forward without impacting the forest,” he said in a statement. “This project is about our veterans, who deserve access to burial sites closer to their communities and their families.”

Hogsett went further, calling on the VA to “halt plans to clear woods and pursue an alternative.” He released a statement after Friday’s agreement.

“Today is a great day for the people of Indianapolis, whose voices have ensured that future generations can enjoy an old-growth forest which represents a unique piece of our city’s natural heritage,” Hogsett said in a statement.

Call IndyStar reporter Amy Bartner at (317) 444-6752. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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