VALPARAISO | The property at Sunset Hill Farm County Park that the Porter County commissioners are eyeing for an animal shelter is locked up for 10 years in a federal preservation program that prohibits construction.
The Porter County Parks Foundation, which recently renewed its participation in the program, has the ability to pull all or part of the land out — but at a cost.
The commissioners face the challenge of winning majority support of the 12-member foundation board, which is slated to discuss the topic during a public meeting at 2 p.m. Sept. 19 in Room 307 of the County Administration Center, 155 Indiana Ave., in Valparaiso.
"We're very much opposed," foundation President David Yeager said of the animal shelter proposal.
He voiced concern about the proposal jeopardizing the foundation's tax status and the potential for traffic along U.S. 6 causing the dogs in the shelter to bark and in turn, disturbing nearby homeowners.
Fellow foundation board member Tim Cole said he opposes the proposal because it would create a dangerous traffic situation on U.S. 6 and is an inappropriate use of park land, which he believes is part of a larger push to move other county offices to the site.
"They need to look somewhere else," he said, suggesting the site of the old county home across from the current shelter on Ind. 2.
The park foundation entered two parcels for a total of 18.6 acres in the conservation reserve program operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Dave Gottlieb, county executive director of the USDA's Farm Service Agency.
The program, which is paying the foundation $3,070 for each of the next 10 years, prohibits any further use of the property other than modifications to aid the goal of protecting the environmentally sensitive area, he said.
The foundation can remove all or part of the land from the program early, but it would have to pay back any money with interest it received for the affected parcel and pay the costs of establishing the deal and a penalty equal to 25 percent of the annual payment for the parcel in question, he said.
Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, said she needs to look closer at the land preservation deal before determining what impact it will have on the effort for the new shelter at Sunset Hill.
While the idea of locating the shelter at the site of the former county home has not been ruled out, she said it lacks the beneficial link to the parks and is problematic because of the nearby homes. The Sunset Hill site along U.S. 6 has been targeted for its central location, high visibility and proximity to park visitors.
Blaney pointed out the park foundation and park board recently granted easement rights through Sunset Hill for a water line and water pumping station in return for access to water. She suggested the possibility of a long-term lease for an animal shelter.
"It was not intended to be a hostile takeover," Blaney said, voicing hope that calmer emotions prevail. "Let's give it a fair look."