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Porter County Park Board hears plan to locate animal shelter at Sunset Hill Farm Park

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

A few things are certain based on the Porter County Park and Recreation Board’s discussion on Thursday with the County Commissioners over the concept of a new animal shelter at Sunset Hill Farm -- there is universal agreement that a larger shelter needs to be built regardless of location, the Shelter’s director Jon Thomas and staff have done a commendable job turning the current undersized Shelter around these past 21 months, and views differ among community members of where the Shelter should be built.

It is also apparent that someone really, really wants to see the new Shelter built. An anonymous donor has made it known to the County Commissioners of his or her intentions to donate $1 million toward the construction.

However, it is not certain yet if the park board will allow the Commissioners to build on a spot on the northern end of Sunset Hill Farm.

The board ultimately decided to take the matter under advisement.

Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, and fellow Commissioner Laura Shurr Blaney, D-South, proposed to form “a working partnership” with the parks department by building a new animal shelter using three to five acres along U.S. 6 about a third of a mile east of the Meridian Road intersection and team up on educational programs.

The commissioners displayed the latest floor plans for a new facility done by the California-based Shelter Planners of America who had also delivered the Commissioners a feasibility study last year.

The firm had recommended the Shelter be roughly 15,000 to 18,000 square feet in size with multiple rooms to house cats and dogs, a separate area for animal control, numerous offices, a larger meeting room or classroom, a spay and neuter clinic, and outdoor kennels creating a V-formation with open areas.

An untapped market

Blaney said there were three major reasons the Commissioners want to use the location at Sunset Hill Farm.

First, the spot would give the new Shelter a desirable amount of visibility and be landscaped to give it an aesthetic appeal.

“It’s going to be a beautiful building, not a pile of cinderblocks we have now,” Blaney said.

Secondly, accessibility would play a big part. Having the Shelter where the county’s population is centrally located “is key” to increasing the number of animal adoptions, she said.

Third, the Shelter and the parks department would be able to synergize on their goals of generating educational programs for the public.

“I just want you to know we didn’t pull this out of thin air. It is a really good spot,” Blaney told the board.

Evans said that based on statistics from the American Pet Products Association, 77 percent of households have pets and inferred that the parks department could hook into one of the county’s “untapped” markets.

Evans also pointed out the Kids Power event to benefit the Animal Shelter last year saw nearly 300 attendees and dozens of vendors. Coupled with the successful events out at Sunset Hill Farm, the two entities would see higher user counts.

Joining the two commissioners at the table, Thomas said putting the new shelter in a favorable spot can double or even triple the adoptions which is important for the Shelter to maintain its no-kill philosophy. He said the park will be able to provide educational programming for future generations.

Evans added that each dog or cat will be neutered or spayed before it is adopted out and in seven years the number of strays in the county should be depleted.

Public comment mixed

Taking a show of hands for the public to comment, park board president Rich Hudson polled the audience on who favored the proposal and who did not, which resulted in an almost even split among roughly 50 audience members.

First to speak was Northern Indiana Historical Power Association president Nick Misch who inquired if NIHPA would still be able to farm on the strip of land which is in ownership of the Porter County Parks Foundation.

Blaney said the Commissioners would be sure “not to take away anything” from NIHPA.

Next, Julie Sausman who has headed up volunteers at the Shelter said she thinks the partnership with the parks department and the central location will work to everyone’s benefit as many animal groups attend events at Sunset Hill Farm.

Dr. Christopher Keeley of Southlane Veterinary Hospital in Valparaiso believes that the shelter “would be a wonderful neighbor for residents in the area” and that the partnership would aid the park in its plans to feature more amenities.

Many others felt that the Commissioners should look elsewhere to build, fearing that a new shelter would disturb the tranquility of the area while others felt a shelter would compromise the purpose of the public park.

Liberty Twp. resident Tracie Demack, who referred to herself as an animal lover, said the noise from the park and nearby traffic would make the animals more agitated and therefore they would be less adoptable because they will be more aggressive.

Noise from the roadway will increase as development is expected in the area over the next five to ten years on the U.S. 6 corridor, she said.

“It’s not going to be the same tranquil place we all moved here for. Sunset Hill Farm will be its only oasis,” she said.

Janet Prosser-Pullins, who said she personally knew Col. Murray and his wife, implored the board to “leave the farm the way it is” adding the Murrays left the land with the intent and purpose that it be used as a park.

She acknowledged the county is in need of a new animal shelter, but “not there.”

Parks supporter and conservationist Herb Read said he too knew the Murrays, as they were good friends with his parents, and he remembers Col. Murray wanting to preserve the land as a park.

Read said his question would be, does an animal shelter belong on property belonging to the Porter County Parks Foundation?, and when he checked the mission statements he could not find anything about an animal shelter.

Read’s wife, Charlotte Read, who has been a long-time member of the Parks Foundation, said donating the land to a government entity would “jeopardize” the Foundation’s status as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Liberty Twp. resident Ed Gutt said he was involved in developing a corridor plan for U.S. 6 and recognized Sunset Hill Farm as a location that would be reserved as “open country.” He also raised concerns about the increasing traffic due to the new hospital moving in.

Current Parks Foundation member and Liberty Twp. resident Tim Cole said the Foundation will need to determine if having the shelter on its acreage at Sunset Hill Farm fits its’ mission. The Foundation has gradually transferred the farm’s 235 acres in pieces to the park board.

Cole was not in favor of putting the new shelter at U.S. 6 but said he would be open to having it near the south entrance on County Road 700 North or in the area south of the parking lots.

Evans said the Commissioners would be willing to talk with the park board about other areas at Sunset Hill Farm they find more suitable.

Portage concerned

Also speaking where two officials from the City of Portage.

City Council member Sue Lynch and Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham mentioned Portage will be dissolving its temporary agreement with the Humane Society of Hobart this year and are hoping they will be allowed to take their strays to the County Animal Shelter.

Lynch said Portage Animal Control sees about 600 strays a year and feel they should be able to take their animals to the County Animal Shelter since they pay taxes to the County.

Stidham said the city gives about $25,000 to the Hobart Humane Society annually for its services and could rededicate that money to the County.

Lynch and Stidham gave no opinion on whether the Shelter should be in Sunset Hill but stressed their hope that the County move forward with a location.

“Wherever it is at, we are really in desperate need,” said Stidham.

Also sitting in at the meeting were Porter County Council members Dan Whitten, D-At Large, and Sylvia Graham, D-At Large. Whitten said he is “not 100 percent sold on the location” and knows that wherever the shelter is constructed, it will have some critics and some supporters.

Graham said the shelter has come a long way and even though the County is grappling with other challenges, she is optimistic a solution will come soon.

Board reaction

Board members David Canright, Ruth Jarneke, and Kris Parker remained quiet throughout the Commissioners’ presentation.

Member Rebecca Tomerlin asked if there were risks of diseases spreading from the sick animals that would taken at the Shelter to dogs walked in the park. Thomas said it is “highly unlikely” for illness to spread as the Shelter will have an isolation unit.

Meanwhile, member Craig Kenworthy enthusiastically supported the concept as he feels it would be a great way to give Sunset Hill Farm more exposure.

“I like this. I don’t have any problems with it,” Kenworthy said. “It’s what we need in this county. We can’t keep burying our heads in the sand.”

Parks Superintendent Walter Lenckos said he is open to the partnership as it could generate more community involvement and was “excited” that voices were heard from all sides of the aisle.

“It shows that people are really passionate about this,” Lenckos said.

 

Posted 9/9/2013