Chesterton Tribune

Park board ponders future of Sunset Hill; public invited to comment

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While the Porter County Parks and Recreation staff is eager and ready to get the wheels turning on a revised layout plan at Sunset Hill County Park, at least one park board member suggested a more cautious approach.

The parks department announced it will hold a public information and input meeting at the Sunset Hill Interpretive Center next Wednesday, Aug. 8, at 6:30 p.m. to give a visual presentation on what could change in the park in the near future. One new feature will be the 9,700 square-foot Raise-the-Barn education center located where the old Murray dairy barn was.

The center would house new education and wellness programs for children and adults, as well as more activities for the youth summer camps.

Layout changes are also possible for the parks amphitheater which Parks Superintendent Walter Lenckos said could seat up to 3,000 and could accommodate new art programs. But with that comes new parking lots and restroom facilities to serve the increased attendance.

The park could also enhance its trails and campground areas as the demand is rising. The National Lakeshore and Dunes State Park officials have contacted the parks department informally about directing campers to Sunset Hill Farm when they have overflows, Lenckos said.

Along with public comments on the parks’ five-year plan approved earlier this year, Lenckos said the department is also taking a look back at a plan developed in 1996 for Sunset Hill Farm.

“Lots of things have changed, lots of things have stayed the same,” said Lenckos.

Those who aren’t able to make Wednesday’s meeting are invited to visit the parks’ website,

to view the diagrams and make their comments electronically.

Lenckos said there is some County Economic Development Income Tax (CEDIT) money lined up in the department’s budget to help fund the renovations as well as the potential of securing some state grant money.

Finding federal dollars would be more of a chore as Congress has passed a proposal on a MAP 21 transportation bill that would severely decrease the amount of money to be used for non-motorized transportation such as walking and biking trails. Lenckos said he expects to see considerably less funding coming for trails in the next two years.

Board member David Canright said he would be cautious of using CEDIT dollars for Sunset Hill upgrades, arguing that large portions of the park should be set aside until the department can accomplish other goals already on its plate, like the Raise-the-Barn project, athletic fields at Brookdale Park in Liberty Twp., and acquiring park land in the southern part of the county.

Canright added that the public has said they favor lands that are set aside to remain natural, without being developed or paved over.

“They like the fact that there are vast areas where you can’t drive,” he said.

Canright pooh-poohed the idea of using the 1996 plan, saying it was “obsolete.”

Lenckos said he dusted off the document because many of the projects mentioned, like having performances at the amphitheater, never came to fruition. He advocated reaching out to the public as that method has proven the most successful. “We’ve got a lot of stakeholders and users out there who want to be part of process.”

Canright suggested forming a working committee, holding public sessions and bringing those suggestions to the board.

Drug testing debated

Thursday was also the last day for Camp FUNset, Lenckos said, calling it an incredible year and offering thanks to the staff.

Parks programming head Katie Rizer said over 600 kids participated in Camp FUNset during this summer season.

Board member Craig Kenworthy lauded Rizer and expressed satisfaction with how the camp was run.

“It looks like (the campers) were having a ball. Running around, giggling, having a good time,” said Kenworthy, who then segued the conversation to a heavier topic. Citing the large numbers of children at the camps, he asked his fellow board members to mull the possibility of having random drug tests for park staff and counselors.

“It protects us, the county and the children,” he said.

Not every board member agreed with Kenworthy’s notion. Member Rebecca Tomerlin objected saying she is “personally and professionally” against random drug testing for several reasons because it can lead to discrimination and that some people have a medical reason for taking drugs.

Kenworthy said those with prescriptions should let the test givers know.

Taking a middle-of-the-road stance, Canright said he would not be completely opposed but the board should look at the cost benefits of drug testing before considering it.

“It’s not a matter of principle; it’s a matter of practical,” Canright said.

Kenworthy said he looked at the county employee policy and saw that only the highway supervisors can drug test their staff.

Board attorney David Hollenbeck, who was former legal counsel for the Porter County Council, said governmental units do not perform random drug testing since it goes against the Constitution, but governments can give the tests if they have probable cause. He said it is allowed to have a drug test during the application stage but not after the person is hired. The issue of drug testing has been considered by the county before but a policy has never been adopted.

Board member and County Extension Office Educator Annetta Jones said adult volunteers for the 4-H program are subject to a background check through the sheriff’s office and must also agree to a behavioral code, which gives office heads some leverage if there is ever misconduct.

Lenckos said his office does do background checks on applicants but echoed concerns that it would end up costing the department more than it benefits. He said so far there have not been any drug-related incidents reported. If the board agrees on a policy to drug test, Lenckos said he would be fine with it, but money would have to be diverted from somewhere else in the parks’ budget.

Covered Bridge being taken to Sunset Hill

After a few years of discussion on what needs to be done about the covered bridge over Brown Ditch on the Calumet Trail, the cover will finally come down and be moved to Sunset Hill.

The park board unanimously agreed to hire Hasse Construction, for $12,500, for the takedown, which according to Parks Planner Ray Joseph includes removal of the parts, shipping them to Sunset Hill in sections and installing a new guard rail. Lenckos said the decking for the bridge will remain over the ditch. No decision has been made on whether the cover will be restored. It has been a target of vandalism for years.

“It’s just been graffitied all over,” Lenckos said.

Lenckos said he would speak with teachers from either Chesterton High School or Valparaiso High School on the possibly of having reconstruction of the bridge be one of their building trades class projects.

In other matters:

• The Vale of Paradise Garden Club and the Porter County Master Gardener Association presented the parks department with a $600 gift towards the purchase of a new rototiller for Sunset Hill Farm’s community garden.

• Dunn’s Bridge Park near the Kankakee River has been cleaned up after a recent spate of bad weather knocked down trees. The parking lot is now open and much of the park is accessible, though park staff is still cleaning up. Lenckos said most of the trees planted in the construction project did survive the storms.

• Parks Manager Matt Howton said he’s tagged for removal nearly 40 trees at the front of Sunset Hill Farm which have been infested with emerald ash borer.



Posted 8/3/2012