Protest group plans to block work on VA’s Crown Hill project

A citizens group is planning a protest Monday morning to block construction crews from beginning work on a national cemetery project at Crown Hill Cemetery.

The “group of concerned citizens” said Sunday in a press release that it plans a 9 a.m. “act of non-violent civil disobedience at the Crown Hill North Forest in an attempt to stop the destruction of a 14.75-acre tract of pre-settlement old growth forest at the hands of the federal government.”

The site is where the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to build a cemetery that would include a series of columbariums for housing cremated remains of veterans and eligible family members. The Crown Hill columbarium would become the only VA national cemetery in the state dedicated to cremated veterans and their relatives.

The protest group said it unaffiliated with any official organization, but includes “veterans, local business owners, childcare providers, the director of Fishable Indiana Streams for Hoosiers, Indianapolis City-County Councilor Zach Adamson, and volunteers with other diverse backgrounds.”

The press release said the protesters will “stay until the VA has agreed to consider an alternative site for their project or are forcibly removed. Though the group’s action is meant to block the path of destruction crews, it should be made clear that it is not meant to show disrespect to law enforcement or veterans.”

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

Environmentalists who want to preserve the property were dealt a setback in January, when a federal judge shot down their legal effort to block the cemetery development.

The Indiana Forest Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, is appealing Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago.

The administration paid $810,000 in September 2015 for 14.75 acres on the northern border of Crown Hill to create the cemetery.

A potential solution to the standoff emerged in November, when the Dr. Laura Hare Charitable Trust presented a “negotiable” offer to the VA to buy the property.

Environmentalists said the deal would save the property from development and help the VA recover expenses related to its plans.

The VA so far hasn’t responded to the offer, apparently signaling it plans to move forward.

On March 8, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett called on the VA to halt the plan. He said he hopes the woods instead will become part of the city park system.

"I feel a deep sense of responsibility to be responsive to the public's alarm about the future of the Woods," Hogsett said in a statement. "As such, I am calling upon the Department of Veterans Affairs to halt their efforts to develop the site. My dream would be for these Woods to become part of the City's park system—one that is an enduring monument to our fallen heroes and one that preserves sacred ground that has been undisturbed for hundreds of years."

Adamson, in a statement issued by the protest group, said another solution should be found.

“Clearly, the VA must provide reasonable access to services for veterans and their families,” the statement said. “But many veterans and non-veterans in our community feel that this obligation can and should be met without eliminating the only old growth forest in inner city Indianapolis. Our action is intended to deliver the message that before any subsequent actions are taken, alternatives must be examined and considered and the public must be provided a sincere chance for input on this taxpayer-financed project.”

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