Chesterton Tribune

LEL dedicates Coffee Creek Watershed preserve

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Two and a half years ago, at a press conference Dec. 28, 1998, the Lake Erie Land Company announced the transfer of 185 acres of the Coffee Creek corridor to the Coffee Creek Watershed Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization expressly created to maintain that land in perpetuity.

At the same time Lake Erie Land announced the restoration of that acreage at its own expense: the cutting and thinning of non-native invasive trees, the planting of native grasses and wildflowers, the cleaning of the waterway itself, and the stabilization of its banks. Lake Erie Land also said that it would construct a variety of amenities, including a network of hike-and-bike trails, a pavilion, and an amphitheater.

Two and a half years later that land—now numbering 167 acres—was officially dedicated, in a ceremony Friday whose theme was the uniqueness of this partnership between developer and environmentalists.

Or as Herb Read, the vice-president of the Conservancy Board of Directors, put it, “The unusual part of this whole event is that environmentalists are here at all.”

Indeed they were. The Conservancy Board is comprised of representatives of Save the Dunes Council, the Porter County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, the Shirley Heinze Environmental Fund, the Coffee Creek Life Center, the Steelheaders of Northwest Indiana, and the Chesterton High School SAFE Club. Read has belonged to several of those groups, and for 50 years, he said, he has protested developers’ standard operating procedure: “raping the land,” razing its trees, then calling it “Twin Oaks subdivision.”

Other developers have paid lip service to preservation, Read told the several hundred people who had gathered at the amphitheater, but most “reneged on their promises . . . and then carved up the land they had pledged to save.” So when LEL President Jerry Mobley made a similar promise himself, he recalled, “I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure.’”

But the proof is in the pudding, Read said, and “Jerry Mobley I now accept as a true believer. . . . We hope this will encourage other developers and I hope that Lake Erie Land makes a very healthy profit on this project.”

Mobley himself did not talk about profit Friday. He talked instead about his failure to find any other example of such a large donation of land made by a developer. “From day one it was decided the environment would be stressed in this property,” Mobley said. Now there are five and a half miles of hike-and-bike trails and “you’ll see salmon running up the stream for the first time in years. . . . It’s really a spectacular place and it’s been developed so that the public can use it.”

Of the innovative technologies in place at Coffee Creek Center to blend development and the environment harmoniously, Mobley appears proudest of one: the level spreaders which recycle stormwater, as many as six million gallons of it, back into the ground in such a way as to eliminate the need for detention and retention ponds. “We don’t put any water back in the stream so we can maintain the stream,” he said.

Gary Neale, president, chair, and CEO of Lake Erie Land’s parent company, NiSource Inc., did talk about profit, however. Coffee Creek Center, he said, “will be a commercial success because it’s an environmental success. . . . Our goal at NiSource is to be environmental stewards and enhance the value of our communities. . . . We want to show that industry can live in harmony with the environment.”

And so the 167 acres donated by Lake Erie Land are only a portion of the approximately 1,000 acres which NiSource has made available for preservation and restoration, Neale said. That acreage had been in terrible condition, he added. “There was more debris than fish” in the stream and “you couldn’t find a single native plant in the creek.” Now, though, Neale encouraged attendees to walk the corridor and “see what the world was like before man ever got here. . . . I believe we’ve set a new standard with the Coffee Creek Watershed Conservancy.”

Gov. Frank O’Bannon, the keynote speaker, concurred. “We’re part of an eco-system that spreads out before it reaches the spot where we’re standing,” he said, and a high standard of living “depends on the environment, clear air, clean water.”

“This is a model,” O’Bannon said of Coffee Creek Center. “This is where you ought to live. This is the way we ought to live, as we protect the environment.”

Specs

The 167 acres is comprised of two types of land: remnant landscape, or that acreage not completely disturbed by human activity and still retaining some features from the pre-settlement period; and new native landscape, or that acreage included in the transfer to the Conservancy to enhance and augment the remnant. Very roughly, he corridor extends from the northwest quadrant of Coffee Creek Center and snakes in the direction of the southeast quadrant.

When Lake Erie Land has completed its restoration of the 185 acres—probably in two years and at a cost of several million dollars—the Conservancy will assume the responsibility of maintaining it, with funds made available to it from dues paid by members of the Coffee Creek Property Owners Association.

Two people who made the transfer possible but were not mentioned Friday are a couple of lawyers: Chesterton Town Attorney Chuck Lukmann and former LEL attorney Cliff Fleming, who together formulated an innovative public right-of-way easement grant in lieu of the usual practice of accepting a dedication of the fee simple rights to those roadways and bridges which traverse the corridor. In other words, the Town of Chesterton will not itself own those public rights-of-way. Instead, Lake Erie Land has granted the town access to those rights-of-way to maintain and repair them, and the town has agreed not to interfere with the stream flow and wildlife in the stream which flows beneath the bridges nor to construct any stormwater discharge outlet which would cause damage or erosion to Coffee Creek.