Environmentalists oppose development

Matthew McClure

View a video piece of Crown Hill here.

If the development goes as planned, the trees you see in the distance will be replaced by 73 single-family homes, 142 townhomes and several retail spaces.

Environmentalists are dismayed with Crown Hill Cemetery's decision to sell 76 forested acres to a real estate developer. Brenwick Development, creators of the Village of West Clay in Carmel, plans to build 73 single-family homes, 142 townhomes and several retail spaces on the land, which stretches from Michigan to Clarendon roads, just south of 42nd Street in the historic Butler-Tarkington neighborhood.

"Old-growth forest, wetlands and non-human species constitute a substantial part of this 76-acre plot," said R. John Gibson, a board member of Earth Charter Indiana. Gibson believes Indianapolis residents need to ask themselves, "How much do we value patches of wildness in our city landscape?"

Crown Hill's 555 fenced-in acres have long been a sanctuary for wildlife and natural beauty, a fact the cemetery emphasizes on its Web site with the following statement: "A walk through the cemetery is a good time to pause and realize that the head of man must sometimes restrain the hand of man if we are going to have any places of natural nature left."

A sentiment such as this one begs the question: Why did Crown Hill opt to sell its most pristine acreage to a real estate developer instead of selling it to the Indianapolis Parks Foundation, which also sought to buy the land?

"We actually initiated contact with the Indianapolis Parks Foundation and explored the possibility of the Parks Foundation acquiring the land for use as a park," explained Keith Norwalk, Crown Hill's president and CEO.

Norwalk said, "In order for the Parks Foundation to acquire and develop the land as a park, a donor would need to come forward and purchase the property and then donate the land for park development." He added, "Our concerns over the development of the land as a park included the development and maintenance of park space, security and the actual use that such a space would generate, recognizing the recent development of park space for the community at the Indianapolis Museum of Art."

"We're disappointed that Crown Hill Cemetery has abandoned its earlier plan to sell the land to the Indianapolis Parks Foundation," said Clarke Kahlo of the Hoosier Environmental Council. "We've walked the site and know it to be a heavily wooded area with high habitat and recreational value. It would be a shame to lose another natural asset to development in a city which is deficient in parkland."

Kahlo doesn't consider the sale to Brenwick a done deal. "We're continuing to research the land's attributes and to discuss alternative possibilities, such as public acquisition, with concerned groups and individuals."

Crown Hill chose to sell the 76 acres to increase the cemetery's endowment for maintenance costs, which add up to about $3 million annually. The asking price for the land was $4.7 million. The city must approve the project before the sale can be finalized.

George Sweet, Brenwick's CEO, spoke about the developer's plan at this month's meeting of the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association. Many attendees expressed concern about how the residential development would affect the forest and its wildlife.

"Our main objective was to save as much of the woods as we can," Sweet assured. He pointed out that the townhouses would be built along Clarendon Road, where few trees now grow.

According to Sweet, the development will include a cluster of upscale homes, priced from $600,000 up to $2 million, surrounding a park with a manmade lake. When asked if Butler-Tarkington residents would be welcome in the park, Sweet said yes, but then added with a smile, "I suppose the people who invest a million dollars in a home won't want Woodstock in the park every weekend."

At the meeting, one nearby resident asked how the developer planned to deal with the land's thriving population of white-tailed deer. "Obviously, it's not our intention to run the deer out of the neighborhood," Sweet responded.

Some residents voiced measured support for the project, believing that it will increase the values of all homes in the area. The development will also help the city's finances. Crown Hill is a non-profit, so currently the land is not taxed. Sweet estimated that property taxes from the development could reap $2 million annually for the city's coffers.

Of course, Sweet's estimate relies on the sale of million dollar homes in the development. Looking at the real estate listings in Butler-Tarkington, the most expensive home is a 1.2-acre estate priced at $849,900, and it has sat on the market since last May. Much more common are homes priced in the $200,000's.

"In light of finite space and finite energy resources, are million-dollar dwellings sustainable?" asked Gibson of Earth Charter Indiana. He asserts that questions such as this one "have been mostly lost in the lusty anticipation of tax revenues and increased property values."


Recommended for you