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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.