Chesterton Tribune

Campground, road and landscape upgrades eyed for Sunset Hill park

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Porter County Parks intern Kevin Snyder did more this summer than just get coffee for the office staff.

The Ball State University undergrad from Lake Station got some real-life experience in landscape architecture by collaborating on conceptual designs with Parks Planner Ray Joseph for new enhancements possible for Sunset Hill Farm County Park. Snyder’s renderings were used Wednesday for the public input session to update the park’s master plan originally drafted in 1996.

About 25 residents turned out to the event held on site at Sunset Hill Farm, eager to get a peek at what the future might hold.

Parks Superintendent Walter Lenckos greeted attendees and told them the meeting would focus on updates to the campground, playground area, community garden, amphitheater and trails.

He said when the parks department gathered input for its new five-year master plan, many residents made general comments that they would like to see more done with the trails and programs at Sunset Hill Farm, but did not provide much detail beyond that. Therefore, a new specialized plan will be attempted.

Parks staff will review the public’s comments and propose a plan to the six-member county park board which would ultimately determine what upgrades should be pursued.

Some of the more prominent changes being eyed are for the features surrounding the park’s entrance and maintenance area, paving Sunset Road with brick pavers, and expanding the campground to accommodate RVs and other recreational vehicles as does the campground at the Indiana Dunes State Park.

“(The campground is) way under utilized because a lot of people don’t know about it,” said Lenckos.

One concept for the campground would provide 69 camping sites with 27 “eco-tent” sites, 21 traditional sites, 21 primitive sites, a 20-space parking lot and a new shower/restroom facility. Visitors would enter through the existing drive.

A second option would leave out the RV parking and keep things more basic with 22 eco-tents and 19 primitive campsites but with a larger parking area with 50 spots.

Joseph said the goal would be to create a “regional destination,” attracting campers from out-of-county. He said the proposals also call for a new pathway and relocation of the park’s existing gate house.

Parks Recreation Supervisor Gayle O’Connor headed up discussions on the concepts for a “natural playground” to replace the existing one.

Plans show construction of an 8-foot wide ADA accessible boardwalk to circle the play area. Different activities would be offered to strengthen children’s physical and mental abilities including a sand area for building, elevated vegetable beds, a climbing rock garden, a tall grass maze, slides and tree swings.

“Getting back to old school play. That’s what it is all about,” O’Connor said.

More trees would be planted around the entrance where Sunset Road would extend off the parking lot due east. Parks Manager Matt Howton said the road would consist of brick pavers instead of asphalt and the design would include restoration of the pond behind the superintendent’s house. Rain gardens would be implemented to improve stormwater quality and reduce runoff volumes.

Other potential features include raised garden beds in the community garden, a wider stage at the amphitheater along with nearby restrooms and concession stands, and more shaded seating for park trails.

Lenckos said his staff will also focus on highlighting the natural ecosystems of Sunset Hill Farm and passive features with soil maps.

“It’s very rare for a facility to have the diversity that we do,” he said.

Community members were asked to complete surveys and rate on a scale the different proposed design concepts.

Longtime park supporters Herb and Charlotte Read, of Liberty Twp., said they are eager to see the park remain a farm as much as possible, as agricultural land in the county is becoming less prevalent.

A local preservationist, Herb Read said he understands there will be some compromise for the development of recreation features but he would not embrace concepts like paved campground areas.

“Leave the area as it is. This is not a city park,” he wrote on his survey.

Lenckos said those who could not make Wednesday’s input session can visit the Parks’ website to see the design ideas, which will be available to view in the next few days, and give their comments. Responses will be shared with the park board at its next meeting scheduled for Sept. 6.

The department will prioritize projects and it may be a while before any come to fruition, Lenckos said. They will be funded from the $300,000 in county income tax money the parks traditionally receive annually from the county commissioners and from the general earnings the parks collect from its programming.

Raise the Barn update

One new feature that was absent from the presented concept designs was the proposed 9,700 square-foot Raise the Barn education center.

The reason, Lenckos told the Chesterton Tribune, is that the Raise the Barn “is totally separate” from the other proposed upgrades and will have a different funding source.

Contracts with Hasse Construction of Munster were signed this spring by the park board for construction management, but so far no date has been determined for the project ground breaking.

The projected cost to construct the center is approximately $3 million and plans to fund it include $700,000, raised in part by the non-profit Porter County Parks Foundation.

Earlier this year, Lenckos approached the County Council and the County Commissioners with the possibility of having the county kick in an additional $1 million.

Both boards indicated support for the project but have not made any formal commitments, although arguments were made by some council members that Raise the Barn could be a good use of the county’s hospital interest fund.

Lenckos told the Tribune he will meet with Commissioner President John Evans and Council President Dan Whitten in the next few days to continue the discussions.

A strategic fundraising campaign by the parks department will be undertaken to make up the rest of the balance for construction costs.

Despite funding hurdles, Lenckos said “everything else is moving smoothly” and he expects the design work to be finished this year.



Posted 8/9/2012