Last night Downtown's War Memorial played host to a meeting with the Veterans' Administration and concerned members of the public. On deck for discussion: plans for the 14.75 acre parcel of land including the Crown Hill North Woods that the VA bought last year
to develop into a centrally located national cemetery for veterans.
The North Woods include Indianapolis' sole remaining old growth virgin forest, including trees that are up to 500 years old.
The meeting, which lasted about two hours and was split evenly between presentations and public Q&A, was attended by over one hundred members of the public, including many representatives of the Indiana Forest Alliance,
environmentalists and veterans.
Glenn Powers, Deputy Under Secretary for Field Programs of National Cemetery Association opened the meeting with an explanation of the NCA's Urban Initiative, which includes acquisition and development of land close to urban centers for national cemeteries.
Many national cemeteries in urban centers like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Indianapolis were completely filled in the '60s and '70s, and, since that time, many veterans have had the option to be buried in cemeteries far from their city centers, Powers said. (A national cemetery in Crown Hill was closed to burials in 1969.) This project, which includes four other sites across the nation where columbarium will be installed in urban centers, aims to solve the “problem of places that have a national cemetery, but it's at too great a distance,” said Powers, to really serve the vets and their families that would like to be buried in a national cemetery.
The VA representatives highlighted that the goal of the Urban Initiative is to fix what is essentially a problem of accessibility, and that their choice of the land the includes the Crown Hill North Woods was in part because of its existing natural beauty.
... And that's when the VA representatives entirely lost the quiet attention of the majority of the attending crowd, because, of course, for the IFA and other environmentalists, the natural beauty is exactly what should be protected from development. The rest of the meeting was marked with shouts and boos, cheers and jeers from the gathered crowd, including a few testy exchanges.
Public meeting about land use at Crown Hill and development of Crown Hill North Woods. Public comment openPosted by Kat Power Coplen on Thursday, September 29, 2016
A number of slides were shown highlighting the design of the proposed development, which would only offer burial in columbarium, a type of memorial that includes “niches” for cremains. Cremation as a burial method is on the rise – currently, it makes up almost 50 percent of all deaths in the United States.
There were signs the VA made allowances for the preservation of some aspects of the natural landscape, especially after public outcry
. Presenters from the VA highlighted the use of Indiana limestone and native plants in the design, and said the design allows for preservation of some of the trees.
This, resoundingly, was not good enough for those gathered to protest the development. Almost every question asked during the Q&A portion of the meeting implored the VA to reconsider use of that space.
A veteran named Rachel said, “I'm a veteran, my husband is a veteran, my father and my grandmother are both buried in the national cemetery in Florida. And my grandfather was unfortunately KIA in WWII, so he doesn't get to be buried in one of our beautiful cemeteries."
“I think we have a different opinion on what beauty is. And I think that you guys [at the NCA] are kind of cheating. I think that going on a site that is already stunning and stealing that natural beauty for our veterans is going around what you guys need to do. There are so many sites around Indianapolis that could be beautified and would be a stunning place for our veterans, and would be a place I would be proud to be buried in. This place, my son goes on school field trips. This place, I walk in and enjoy the beauty in my city. There's not enough left. If you could make more, that would be fantastic. But please don't take away what we already have.”
A representative of the Crown Hill Neighborhood Association asked simply, if “We could take another look, with the community, and see how we can work together. … It will be better if we work together.”
Felicity Kelcourse from Christian Theological Seminary said, “I think we have a conflict of cultures, here. The idea that we can save a few trees here and a few trees there and everything is going to be fine, that doesn't compute, and I'll tell you why. This forest is irreplaceable as it is. This forest predates our nation. It's been in place, as it is, as a forest community, before we were even a nation. Public attitudes have changed to the point that we realize, we don't want to destroy things that are irreplaceable any more. We just don't want to destroy them. …
“Tweaking with the design is not going to answer the concerns of many people here. What we need and what we want and what I'm writing letters every day begging people to consider is please, please, consider relocating your plan. It's a lovely design, but it's taking something beautiful away, something that has to be intact to be what it is. ...You walk in there, and it's like being in a cathedral. The trees are five stories tall. I wanted to pray when I was in there.
Kelcourse reminded the VA that public outcry was part of the reason development of the same land in 2007 was halted. “We thought that Crown Hill wasn't going to do this to us again, but they have. And I feel that they've tricked you into a controversy. You could be the hero in all of this. You could be the hero in this controversy.”
After the aborted 2007 development, the Central Indiana Land Trust made moves to buy the land for preservation. 2008's economic crash made that purchase impossible.
No representatives from Crown Hill Cemetery, which is a private cemetery, spoke at the meeting.
Jerome Delbridge, a certified arborist, asked the VA if they'd consider reopening to public comment period.“I'm familiar with these woods as a certified arborist. Not only the trees – but the trees support an entire ecosystem that's unique to this area, and especially unique to an urban city center. … Would you be willing to reopen the environmental assessment comment period and have a public forum on this project so we can all have that constructive dialogue with you about how this can be done meeting all of our needs?”
The VA responded that they followed all the National Environmental Policy Act regulations, and would not reopen the comment period.
After the conclusion of the meeting, NUVO asked Delbridge to expand on the specifics of the site.
Delbridge: “When you see some of these trees, they are very large trees, and even the layperson will see these are remarkable. It's more than the trees, though. The trees are necessary for the forest ecosystem that's there. What the layperson may not see is the diversity of trees. They may not see the diversity of other plants and wildlife that are supported by this.
“Urban forests provide a lot of things. They help with water; here in Indianapolis, we have combined sewers, so when raindrops fall in a big forest like this, those raindrops are going to get intercepted and slow down, and not be put into a sewer system. These forests clean the air; the leaf surfaces, when pollution goes through the air, the leaves actually catch it and trap it. The trees provide more oxygen. There's so many benefits and ecological services that these trees are providing. And with an inventory we could actually put numbers to that. If we had an inventory of these trees, we could run it through a computer model and show how much benefit these trees are doing every year. But it's in the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of value."
Air quality issues in Indianapolis were highlighted by other members of the public during the Q&A portion of the meeting. One protester said, “We cannot replace what would be lost if these trees are taken out. There's an empty field right next to that forest that could be used, and it would be a great way to honor our veterans.”
One commenter, Britton Shoellhorn, an Army vet still serving in the Indiana National Guard and an active VFW member, spoke in favor of the development, and said that since the VA had walked through the site with representatives from the DNR, he would be proud to be buried there as a vet.
After the meeting's conclusion, NUVO asked Shoellhorn to expand on his thoughts on the project.
Shoellhorn: “I grew up in Chicago for a little bit and was used to the city life. We moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and nobody was around us. It was trees. There were a few neighbors who had houses around us. But it was great – I had never seen trees [like that] before and I loved it. I liked having to call somebody if I needed to talk to them, not just walk next door. It was beautiful.”
NUVO asked if, in Shoellhorn's opinion, there would be anything lost in this project if the plans were located to the adjacent land, in a grassy area.
“I still think it would be okay, but to me, the negative thing that would be lost was [that] I [was] excited to be within the wooded area. They are planning on having woods surrounding the actual cemetery. To me, I love trees. I want to be in trees; I don't care about an open field, and that's what a lot of cemeteries are, unfortunately. And this one is trying to go away from that. They're planning to plant trees in between the rows of [columbarium.] To me, it was a great honor,” said Shoellhorn.
After the meeting concluded, NUVO asked VA NCA representative Powers about the likelihood that the site of the Urban Initiative project would change after the response in this public meeting.
He said, “Right now, we are not reopening that process, but we are working with the community. Just like tonight, we are here to hear about input.”
Anne Laker of the Indiana Forest Alliance said of what's next for the IFA's efforts, “We're going to encourage people to call Senator Donnelly, Senator Coates, Representative Brooks and Representative Carson and get them to put pressure on US Secretary Robert McDonald.”
In a private meeting between representatives of the VA NCA and the Indiana Forest Alliance held a few weeks ago, VA officials indicated that the only way to halt the project at this point would be if VA Secretary Robert McDonald requested it.
The VA has scheduled tree removal for December. Construction would begin in spring 2017 with an opening date of fall 2018.