Chesterton Tribune


Divided Porter County planners favor air dome at The Courts

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The Courts of Northwest Indiana took its first step toward bringing six new indoor tennis courts to Porter County, but what may bring more interest and discussion is the air-inflated dome that would cover them.

The nine-member Plan Commission had mixed feelings about how the dome would fit in with the characteristics of the U.S. 6 overlay district. The planners on Wednesday passed a favorable motion with a close vote 5-4 for a design wavier.

Granting design waivers used to fall under the jurisdiction of the Board of Zoning Appeals but a law passed this year now hands the duty back to the Plan Commission.

The dome and tennis areas are a few of the possible expansions The Courts is eyeing. As it was proposed to the Plan Commission on Wednesday by owner Mark Bengel and legal counsel Todd Leeth, two of the courts will be teaching courts and the other four will be used for play. A clubhouse building will serve as the entrance into the 36 foot high dome.

The facility would be detached from the main Courts building and sit southwest on the property facing east. Pine trees and berm would be placed around the dome to buffer it from the roadways.

Leeth said the structure could stand up to winds of 150 miles per hour, snow loads of 50 pounds per square foot, and is fire retardant with a life span of more 20 years. The cost would be significantly less than a conventional brick and mortar structure and the translucent dome will allow in some natural light, cutting down on the costs of artificial lighting.

The design wavier is sought because there is nothing in the county’s Arterial Roadway Overlay for Ind. 49 that is applicable to a dome structure, Leeth said. The Courts property is zoned in a High Intensity Commercial district.

Public Support

Tennis. It’s everyone’s game and kids from ages 2 to 102 can play it, according to several individuals speaking from a crowd of more than 30 tennis enthusiasts who showed up to support the new dome.

A pair of tennis coaches from Valparaiso University said their teams have to travel to Michigan City or Lake County to practice when the courts are closed in the winter. VU Men’s Tennis Head Coach Jim Daugherty said there is “very much a need” for a facility like this and it could be the new home for VU Tennis and be used for events.

The tennis courts would also be a benefit to high school teams in the county as they too have had to travel out of the county to practice, Valparaiso High School tennis coach Matt Evans said.

Kate Flannery of the Valparaiso Fit City Council advocated the opportunity for physical activity in the community for all ages.

No one from the audience gave remonstrations against the Courts’ request.

Bengel said tennis courts were a part of The Courts a short time ago but the space is now utilized by another group.

Board questions location

County Planner Richard Burns said “apparently there is a need” for tennis courts in the community but was the first to question how the character of the dome would affect the surrounding area and its visibility from U.S. 6 and Ind. 49.

He also mentioned the county had granted a conditional landscaping variance for the location to a group called “Pump It Up” in 2008. The plans there never came to fruition but Burns questioned if the conditions of that variance were to be followed.

Leeth said The Courts landscaping plan would be done differently from “Pump It Up” and said the request for the design wavier is not for the landscaping. Details about The Courts’ new landscaping plans would be forthcoming in a later request, Leeth said.

Another planner Lyndsay Ploehn asked whether the building would upset any neighbors. Bengel said there are two homes that will separate the dome from U.S. 6 and those are mission houses owned by Liberty Bible Church. Bengel said he is a member of Liberty Bible and church officials have agreed to the project.

County planner and County Council member Sylvia Graham voiced many questions about the safety of the dome structure and felt it should be reviewed, requiring more discussion from the board, since there is no mention of air domes in the county’s Unified Development Ordinance.

“I feel that we would be setting a precedent in Porter County,” Graham said. She added however she does like the idea of the project as a benefit for residents’ wellness, although she would vote against the request for the wavier.

Planner wants area cleaned up

Harsher criticisms were made by planners and Liberty Twp. residents Tim Cole and Herb Read.

Cole said he would not support the project until the business clears up the “aggregate” behind the property of supplies that allegedly have been sitting there for a few years despite requests from the planners to have it removed.

“If you have a concern for the people of Porter County, you should be concerned with cleaning up that property,” Cole said to Bengel. “It’s a mess. That’s the way I look at it.”

Leeth said he would have to “agree to disagree” with Cole about his statements as he and Bengel disputed any “mess” on the property.

Cole said he hopes the beneficial attributes spoken about the dome and the tennis courts do not overshadow the issues on the site that he feels are being ignored.

He also joined in the comments about preserving the U.S. 6 overlay and stressed that developments like this needed guidance and planning.

Meanwhile, Read said he feels the dome is out of place and would be better suited in another location away from residential districts, but objected outright since the county’s development standards are “silent” on air domes.

“An air dome is a radical departure from what is in our UDO.”

Leeth and Bengel said the state regulations do allow for air domes to be built.


In the final vote, planners who approved the project in the majority were Ploehn, Commission President Nancy Adams, David Collins, Kevin Breitzke, and Richard Maxey. Those dissenting were Cole, Read, Burns and Graham.



Posted 9/27/2012