Chesterton Tribune

Story of Chesterton trail restroom is tale of community failure

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This is a story about rotten kids, nature’s call, and public funds.

It’s not a new story. Go into any restroom facility in any municipal park in the country, and there’s a good chance you’ll find that someone with a pocket knife, a can of spray paint, or a lead pipe has been there before you.

That is, you’ll probably find that a vandal has been there before you only if that restroom facility is actually open for use.

A case in point. In 1998 a handsome new restroom facility was opened on the Prairie Duneland Trail at an approximate cost of $50,000, a portion of a $1 million federal grant obtained by the Town of Chesterton to build the trail. It was a nice facility, cedar constructed, and a great amenity for bicyclists and pedestrians. Six months later, after vandals had targeted it repeatedly, the facility was closed forever and for eight years has been a shuttered eyesore.

“People kept ripping it up,” Park Superintendent Bruce Mathias told the Chesterton Tribune. “I can’t put a guy there 24 hours a day.”

Two weeks ago a crew began gutting that facility. Its parts and plumbing will be cannibalized for use elsewhere, and a pair of portable chemical toilets will be installed—and secured—in the shell.

The Parks and Recreation Department (PRD) is hardly alone in its ongoing battle against restroom vandals. Mathias cited the case of an extensive bike trail in Colorado on which permanent restroom facilities were likewise replaced with portable chemical toilets after it was determined to be cheaper simply to empty the chemical toilets periodically than it would be continually to repair the vandalized restrooms.

Portable toilets are one solution. Another is a virtually indestructible facility, as Park Board Member Vince Emanuele recalls the Chicago Park District’s installing at one time. “Those park restrooms were almost unbelievable,” he said. “All-concrete construction, even the urinals. They were basically like what you would put into a prison cell. But the cost of doing that today is prohibitive.”

Forget vandal-proof, though. Just try vandal-resistant. As it happens, Mathias said that he got his idea for the design of the restroom facility at Dunes Friendship Land—built with a portion of a $50,000 Build Indiana grant awarded in 1997—from highly robust prison commodes. That facility incorporates an all-stainless steel construction, from the toilets to the urinals, from the sinks to the push buttons. And the restrooms there have mostly stymied the vandals (although they were set on fire once).

Of course, the restroom facility on the Prairie Duneland Trail, isolated and remote as it was, proved a soft target from the beginning, difficult for police officers to patrol on a regular basis and easy for vandals to damage without undue fear of being caught in the act. The restroom facility at Friendship Land and that one at Dogwood Park East are both more visible and accordingly less prone to vandalism.

Still, neither one is open on a 24-hour basis or—for that matter—during anything like normal business hours, nor probably could it be, given a vandal’s capacity for mischief in an empty park even in broad daylight. As Emanuele noted, a vandal may prefer to break things in the middle of the night but he can clog a toilet or sink anytime. Thus, for example, the restroom facility at Friendship Land is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the summer program, at times on weekends, or when the shelter has been rented and a park employee is there to monitor it. The one at Dogwood East is usually open for soccer and softball games or special events. For park users who need to answer nature’s call when those restrooms are closed, there’s a portable toilet at both parks.

As part of the $2 million general obligation bond issue floated last year to fund park improvements, two new restroom facilities are planned for Dogwood, at a total cost of $100,000, one to replace the old facility at Dogwood East and a new one at Dogwood West. Although those facilities have not yet been designed, Mathias said, they will similarly incorporate the vandal-resistant all-stainless construction used in the restrooms at Friendship Land. But they too will only be open on a limited basis.

“It’s terrible,” Emanuele conceded, when a parent with a child in desperate need of the potty finds the restroom at Friendship Land or Dogwood locked. “And it’s a shame. It’s only a few people who inconveniencing everyone else.”

For his part Town Council Member Mike Bannon, R-5th—who originally broached the idea of floating a general obligation bond issue for park improvements—voiced his confidence in the Park Board’s ability to balance the security of the new restrooms with their usability, given the significant price tag attached to those facilities. “I’m most certain,” he said, “that the Park Board will do whatever it can to make them easy to use for the public and at the same time to limit vandalism.”

Has the PRD considered forgoing permanent restroom facilities at Dogwood for a bank of portable chemical toilets? “We weighed that,” Mathias said, “but it’s a cost-effective thing.” Maintaining a single chemical toilet costs $110 per month, maintaining a handicapped accessible one $180 per month. Install more than one or two to accommodate the volume at Dogwood and pretty soon you’re talking serious money. “The others are permanent and you don’t have to mess with them.”

It will come as no surprise that the vandalism of park property—any park property, from picnic tables to playground equipment to shelters—is fairly commonplace. Mathias was unable to estimate the annual cost to the PRD of repairs and cleanup but he did say that 20 man-hours per week could probably be devoted to picking up the pieces left by vandals.

Unfortunately, in most cases the PRD is forced to eat those costs, whatever they are, with moneys from its General Repair and Maintenance Fund. Jim Anton of Anton Insurance Agency, the Town of Chesterton’s agent, explained that the town’s policy carries a $1,000 per occurrence deductible, and very few incidents of vandalism—however aggressive and destructive they may be—ever hit that threshold. The ongoing vandalism of the Prairie Duneland Trail restroom facility never did, he noted, and no claim was ever filed.

Anton also said that, even in those cases where damage does exceed $1,000, the town needs to consider the wisdom of filing all or any of the claims, since the more claims filed the more likely Chesterton’s carrier is to increase the deductible.

For the record, the Chesterton Police Department took a town-wide total of 174 reports of vandalism in 2004, a total of 154 in 2005, and through July 1 of this year a total of 92. Police Chief George Nelson characterized vandalism as an especially difficult crime to investigate: usually committed under cover of darkness, at times and in places without witnesses, with little physical evidence left at the scene.

“If it’s just a random act, like most of it is, you’ve got to be lucky,” Nelson said. “You’ve got to catch them in the act and then hope like heck, if there’s been a recent rash, they start fessing up to everything else that’s been going down.”

It’s unclear whether anyone was ever charged with the vandalism of the Prairie Duneland Trail restroom facility. Nelson was unable to find any 1998 case report at all in his department’s computer system on any incident of vandalism there. At the time, moreover, juvenile cases were not routinely archived in the computer system, he said, and in any event had a juvenile been detained in connection with the vandalism, the adjudication of the case would not be a matter of public record.



Posted 7/24/2006