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IN – Recreational land requirement no longer part of Dunes project plan

That’s according to a letter last month from Roger Knowlton, an official with the National Park Service, to Cameron Clark, director of the DNR.

The news was not a surprise to Jim Sweeney, co-founder of Dunes Action, a grassroots group which has been a vociferous opponent of the plans for the banquet center and selling liquor at the pavilion.

“I’m not surprised but being the skeptic that I am, the only reason they’d be doing this is to minimize the square footage they would need to mitigate” the side by side projects, he said.

The letter also raised the ire of Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has been working to ensure that the NPS gave the project at the state park full review. Paula Dinerstein, senior counsel for PEER, had a series of questions about the NPS’s decision in a Tuesday letter to officials there.

“You just stated last week that NPS would take our concerns into consideration and provide a response,” Dinerstein wrote. “Now I learn that weeks earlier, you had pre-determined the issues we raised in a formal letter to the Director of IDNR.

“Not only did that letter state that the proposed uses at the old Pavilion would be acceptable, but that once the Pavilion Partners lease is revised, no further NPS review and approval would be required, meaning that the project could go ahead without further notice or review.”

The Sept. 16 letter was a recap of discussions DNR and NPS officials had during a conference in French Lick, Ind., when they discussed plans by Pavilion Partners to renovate the pavilion and build a 17,000-square-foot banquet center.

Dan Bortner, director of the DNR’s Division of State Parks and Reservoirs, provided the letter, which also references a visit to the state park by NPS officials, to the Post-Tribune.

The plans for the pavilion and banquet center by Pavilion Partners, which is led by Valparaiso businessman Chuck Williams, must undergo review by the NPS because the state park receives grant money under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Under the tenets of the fund, any land lost from recreational use must be replaced with comparable land of the same or greater value.

Knowlton said in his letter that the lease agreement between the DNR and Pavilion Partners, under which Pavilion Partners is paying the state $18,000 a year for 35 years with the option of a 30-year renewal, will have to be changed to reflect the conversion.

He also notes that because the LWCF Act went into effect after the pavilion was built around 1930, “NPS review and approval would not be required for the proposed improvements or changes to the building to accommodate those allowable uses.”

Sweeney disagrees.

“That’s their interpretation. We haven’t seen anything that says it should be exempt because of its age,” he said. “It just seems like something they did to make things go faster” and reduce the cost of the conversion.

He also argued that the fine dining restaurant and rooftop bar planned for the pavilion would not be open to the beachgoers.

“I’d like to see another state park that provides a rooftop lounge for its park-going public. I don’t think there are any,” he said.

The banquet facility would require a conversion, Knowlton said in his letter.

“Although the facility could bring additional visitors to the park, it seems these visitors’ primary purpose for visiting Indiana Dunes would be to attend a function held in the facility, making outdoor recreation secondary to the facility event. Meanwhile visitors who come to the park primarily to recreate will not have access to the facility,” Knowlton wrote.

The DNR would be responsible for handling the conversion, though a possible land site has not been selected.

“We have not made any decisions with regard to the conversion at this time,” Bortner said, adding his agency would pay for the land.

Under Dunes Actions’ interpretation of the conversion, the land swap would have to beachfront property, Sweeney said.

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