The wildlife, trees and plants that inhabit the woods and wetlands at the north end of Crown Hill Cemetery are safe from disruption for at least a year. In a 4-3 vote on March 21, the Metropolitan Development Commission denied Mann Properties’ petition to rezone 70 acres of trees and fields at Michigan Road and West 42nd Street to allow commercial and residential development.
Mary Ellen Gadski, spokesperson for the Alliance of Crown Hill Neighbors (www.allianceofcrownhillneighbors.org), the group of 19 local organizations and scores of individuals that formed to promote preserving the land and oppose developing it, said, “Future generations will be indebted to the commissioners for their courageous vote, which is the first step towards the preservation of this significant natural area.”
The hearing room, packed with well over 100 opponents to the rezoning request, resounded with cheers and applause as the vote result was announced after nearly two hours of testimony from both sides and questions from several commissioners.
Commissioner Jim Cummins and petition opponent Kerry Michael Manders, executive director of the Crooked Creek Community Council, each made the point that the county’s Comprehensive Plan calls for commercial development farther north on Michigan Road but not at the Crown Hill site. Cummins asked if the retail component was necessary and was told by Tim Stevens, development coordinator for Mann, that the retail area is what makes the residential area attractive and that it would be hard to develop the land without it. Cummins voted to deny the petition.
Although he voted with the minority to approve the rezoning, a question from Commissioner Robert Kennedy highlighted what critics point to as one of the flaws in the zoning process. Kennedy asked Department of Metropolitan Development principal planner Larry Williams whether the proposed development would look like the artistic renderings included in the materials Mann provided with their petition. When Williams responded that it was possible but that the plans were subject to change, Kennedy stated, “Then this is a worthless document.” Many in the assembly room applauded this recognition of the fact that petitioners are not required to provide what their plans seem to promise.
Crown Hill President Keith Norwalk testified to the cemetery’s need for funds to maintain the historic cemetery, but Councilor Scott Keller (R-District 16) spoke of the recent agreement with Gibraltar Remembrance that effectively doubled the cemetery’s care fund. Keller urged the commissioners to turn down the Mann petition to give interested parties time to “let money be raised to save this land.” Keller said Crown Hill could come back in a few years if necessary. (Denial of the rezoning petition means the commission will not consider another attempt to rezone the land within a year.)
The witness with the most star power was nearby Golden Hills resident and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, who evoked the image of chainsaws cutting a swath through “old forests” and said he doesn’t see how such action could be viewed as favorable.
Though Crown Hill’s Norwalk offered no insight into the cemetery’s next step, the Alliance remains committed to working with Crown Hill and potential funders interested in maintaining the natural area as a community resource.