UPDATE: Forest Alliance sues to stop Crown Hill cemetery project

crown hill old growth forest

The controversy over the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ plans to develop a military cemetery with a series of above-ground columbariums on 15 wooded acres north of Crown Hill Cemetery has ended up in court.

The Indiana Forest Alliance and several other plaintiffs on Wednesday morning filed a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Indiana to block progress on the project, citing violations of federal environmental law.

The VA paid $810,000 last September for 14.75 acres on the northern border of Crown Hill to create the cemetery, which would include a series of columbariums for housing cremated remains of veterans and eligible family members.

But the plan has spurred vehement opposition from environmentalists and nearby residents who object to the removal of old-growth trees at the site, some of which they say are at least 300 years old.

“The plaintiffs seeking this injunction are neighbors, veterans, scientists and others who see the irreplaceable ecological value of this forest to the city, the surrounding neighborhood and to Indiana’s heritage,” said Jeff Stant, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance, during a Wednesday press conference. “There is no question that alternative sites exist for this worthy project to honor veterans.”

A potential solution to the standoff emerged last month, when the Dr. Laura Hare Charitable Trust presented a “negotiable” offer to the VA to buy the property. The deal could save the property from development and help the VA recover expenses related to its plans, according to the trust.

It was unclear Wednesday afternoon whether the VA was still considering the offer, or if any significant site work already had started on the project. A spokesperson for the VA National Cemetery Administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for the administration told IBJ in September that it was working to minimize the impact of the project on old-growth trees, which it defined as having a diameter of 30 inches or greater.

The injunction filed Wednesday claims the VA violated parts of the National Environmental Policy Act.

It claims that the VA bought the property before completing a required environmental review, in violation of NEPA. The department also failed to look at alternative sites for the project, as NEPA requires, and didn’t meet requirements for notifying the public about aspects of the project, according to the injunction.

It also claims that the VA should have conducted a specific review called an "Environmental Impact Statement" but did not.

The plaintiffs want work on the project to stop and for the court to order the VA to properly consider alternatives, solicit public input and conduct a full environmental impact statement.

The 14.75-acre parcel would be considered part of Crown Hill National Cemetery, which already exists nearby on 2.5 acres. The national cemetery is owned and operated by the VA. It is separate from the 550-acre Crown Hill Cemetery, which is open to the public.

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