Indiana Dunes Pavilion Project Hits Big New Snag
National Park Services Finds Several Project Aspects Non-compliant
Washington, DC — A plan to build a massive commercial center on the shore of Lake Michigan in an Indiana state park runs afoul of the federal statute that provided grants for improvements to the park, according to a letter from the National Park Service (NPS) to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). If the project proceeds, it threatens to cost Indiana taxpayers to cure what NPS terms “non-compliant” uses of lands supported by federal funds on the condition they enhance outdoor recreation.
At issue is a plan by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to allow a private company to “restore” the historic Indiana Dunes State Park Pavilion while also installing three restaurants with bars, a gallery for wedding rehearsal dinners, space for a craft brew pub, a yoga/dance studio, a photography and an art studio, topped with a rooftop lounge. Plans also include a 17,000 square-foot banquet and conference center to be built along the beach at the park adjacent to the Pavilion.
Much of the Indiana Dunes State Park and its Pavilion was developed with grants from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Its authorizing statute forbids conversion of LWCF-developed property to uses other than for public outdoor recreation, absent approval from the NPS and that approval must be premised on the state purchasing outdoor recreational land of equivalent value.
In a December 4, 2015 letter to PEER, NPS Midwest Regional Director Cameron Sholly stated that “several of the prospective uses would be non-compliant, and if carried out, would constitute conversion.” He notes –
“Although weddings, wedding receptions, and banquets can be conducted outdoors, they are not generally categorized as contributing to the outdoor recreation experience….Likewise, the construction of new banquet facilities not accessible to the public could not be approved…”
“This project appears to be an illegal conversion of an investment in public outdoor recreation into a commercial profit center,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who has been pressing NPS for months to weigh in. “Compounding the confusion is the state agency’s lack of forthrightness about what exactly it is approving to be built and where.”
Technically, NPS cannot halt non-compliant development of LWCF-funded lands but, if it proceeds, must “assure the substitution of other recreation properties of at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location.” Given the lakeshore setting, it is not clear that the state could create equivalent value for a conversion or from what funding source.
“The promise that this project will cost the state and its taxpayers nothing now seems illusory,” added Dinerstein. “These are irreplaceable recreational crown jewels that should be polished, not pawned.”
Also looming over the benighted project is the decision by the Porter County Alcoholic Beverage Board in September to deny a liquor license which is likely needed to make the private venture possible. Yet, it is precisely these private uses that conflict with federal law.