VA delays plan for Crown Hill amid growing opposition

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has delayed work on a national cemetery project at Crown Hill Cemetery while it reviews those plans, the VA said Monday afternoon.

The decision comes amid growing opposition to the 15-acre development, which opponents say endangers old-growth forest on the northern border of Crown Hill near 42nd Street and Clarendon Road.

“Current site work at Crown Hill is temporarily on hold while VA continues to assess our plans to honor and serve Indianapolis Veterans,” Jessica Schiefer, public affairs officer for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, said Monday afternoon in an email to IBJ.

The decision was welcomed by about two-dozen protesters from a citizens group that arrived at the site Monday morning to block any construction crews from continuing site work, which quietly began last Friday with some minor tree and brush clearing.

Those construction crews never arrived. Instead, Indianapolis police delivered news of a stop-work order to protesters who had been on the scene for about three hours, said Russ Sipes, a local attorney who is part of the group.

“I think they (the VA) want to understand more about the issues before they go any further,” said Sipes, who earlier filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuit that sought to stop the project. “We’re pleased they are going to slow down and look at other ways to do this.”

Schiefer said the VA did not yet have a timetable for when a decision would be made regarding when or if work will continue at the site.

The VA’s plan calls for a columbarium-only cemetary for housing cremated remains of veterans and eligible family members. It would become the only VA national cemetery in the state dedicated to cremated veterans and their relatives.

The VA said the project would “meet the burial needs of over 250,000 Veterans and families who reside in the Indianapolis metropolitan area.”

The citizen’s group said Sunday that it planned to use an “act of non-violent civil disobedience” to stop the project, even if it meant being “forcibly removed.”

The group is 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 goal, it said, is to persuade the VA to build the project elsewhere in Crown Hill or at another site where it won’t damage old-growth trees, 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 VA paid $810,000 in September 2015 for the site.

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.

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

The VA said it revised its plan earlier this year to save as many trees as possible.

“This revised plan will retain and incorporate all mature trees measuring 40 inches in caliper (diameter) or greater,” the VA said in a statement about the plan. “Additionally, the plan now retains 73 percent of 30-39 inch caliper trees, a 27 percent increase from the original design.”

The design also includes “the retention of wetlands areas and an extensive woodland buffer around all areas of planned development,” plus the planting of 200 more trees.

That plan has not been accepted by opponents.

Last week, 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."

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