Chesterton Tribune



Editorial: DNR violates the public trust with Dunes State Park conference center

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The following is a Chesterton Tribune Editorial

Earlier this year the Indiana Department of Natural Resources revealed it was on the verge of allowing construction of a private conference center at the Dunes State Park beach.

The conference center would be privately developed on public land under a lease lasting up to 65 years.

Hoosier taxpayers were first introduced to this philosophy by former governor Mitch Daniels, who leased the Indiana Toll Road to a private firm. That lease was rightly criticized for selling the birthright of Indiana’s children in exchange for a slush fund to enhance Daniel’s reputation and fund I-69 in southern Indiana.

The DNR plan for the Indiana Dunes, like the Toll Road lease, will lock up a public asset for generations. Unlike the Toll Road lease, the public will get little in the way of financial benefit in return with the guaranteed rental payments amounting to little more than the rent on a typical Hoosier home.

Proposals for a restaurant, hotel or conference center in the Dunes State Park are nothing new. Plans dating back to the 1980s have sparked widespread opposition. Opponents fear loss of public parking, restrictions on beach access, night time light pollution, developmental sprawl into nearby dunes and foot-in-the-door expansion to a casino. The latest plan adds the threat of an eventual marina.

The DNR has a contradictory history on parking at the Dunes. In the 1960s the DNR paved over a blowout and inland dunes to build parking lots west of the pavilion, prompting environmentalists to fight for creation of the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Preserve as a defense against future rapacious park managers. Most recently the new gatehouse and day-lighting of Dunes Creek have actually cut parking while the 4th of July events have overwhelmed the remaining lots. The conference center plan adds to the burden on lots already overwhelmed on hot summer weekends.

In 2006 the hotel plan died and, over time, a compromise emerged to convert the existing pavilion into a full-scale restaurant without expanding the footprint of the building.

Some opponents reluctantly accepted the likelihood of restrictied parking in exchange for ending the threat of a hotel at the beach.

The DNR began looking for firms to remodel and operate a restaurant in the existing pavilion building. In 2011 DNR officials issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a private firm to remodel the pavilion and operate a restaurant.

The RFP sparked little interest.

In 2012 friendly legislators were found to push through an ill-advised law to allow alcohol sales in the pavilion at the beach.

This overturned decades of sensible DNR policies to keep alcohol away from the beach. It also broke with the family-friendly alcohol-free policy at other Indiana State Parks. (Currently a new legislative effort -- SB 515 -- is underway to allow boozing “within 100 feet of the pavilion and pavilion parking lot.”)

Even with the new power to offer drinks, the DNR was only able to attract two proposals to the RFP.

One fit the RFP more or less.

The other was for something else entirely. This plan added two new buildings, one on the west and another on the east -- the west building for restrooms, the east building for a conference center.

At this point DNR officials had three choices.

1. Accept the RFP that fit their original plan.

2. Declare that none of the proposals were adequate and drop the plan.

3. Announce a new plan for a conference center and ask for public comment prior to issuing a new RFP.

DNR policy favoring public comment is clear.

The agency oversees the five year planning process for town, county and city park systems with strict mandates for public participation and comment.

As the DNR says on its planning website, park systems should be providing community input opportunities” and “ensuring that the public actually wants the facilities that are developed.”

Instead of following its own rules and traditions the DNR amended the specifications to match the plans of the private group shutting out the public and denying rights of other developers to offer competing plans.

Espcially troubling is the developers’ assertion that a hotel or marina might be needed in the future. Will a casino follow?

Why did the DNR throw out a compromise that was the result of thirty years of public debate and abandon nearly 100 years of public participation policy to push through a conference center for a group of private developers?

The answer may be disturbingly simple.

One of the developers is Republican activist Chuck Williams.

Williams, a past Chairman of the Porter County Republican Party, is currently the GOP First Congressional District chair and sits on the Indiana Republican Central Committee.

Proceeding with this project is a betrayal of the rank and file DNR naturalists and park managers who work tirelessly with the public to protect the environment and promote outdoor recreation for all Hoosiers.

We ask that Chesterton Tribune readers call on their elected officials to insist that the Department of Natural Resources be held to the highest standards of ethics, public participation and stewardship and scrap this plan.


Chesterton Tribune news stories on the DNR pavilion plan in reverse chronological order:

Bill to expand alcohol at Dunes State Park passes State Senate

Pavilion plan meeting draws a crowd

DNR sets public meeting on Dunes State Park pavilion project Wednesday, April 15 at Chesterton Middle School

Crowd turns out for open house on banquet center at Dunes State Park beach

Pavilion plan: DNR answers reporters' questions in separate session

DNR to face questions on Pavilion project at Monday open house

Principals in Dunes State Park Pavilion rehab are well known to local business community

State Park Pavilion rehab begins as part of restaurant deal




Posted 4/20/2015




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