Chesterton Tribune



Porter County Zona wildlife sanctuary in disrepair family says

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The Paul C. Zona Wildlife Sanctuary at 601 E. 950 N. in Jackson Township has been closed to the public following storm damage and to tackle a backlog of maintenance, according to Bob Gregg, a former president of the Porter County Wildlife Management Board, which previously managed the property.

When that maintenance will occur is in question, however, as Gregg says the County has been slow to transfer oversight of the Sanctuary to the Porter County Park Department.

The Porter County Board of Commissioners has historically appointed a seven-member Wildlife Management Board to manage the Sanctuary and provided funding as needed, but the Wildlife Board was not reestablished this year in anticipation that the Sanctuary would be maintained by the Porter County Park Department going forward. The 92-acre property was donated to the County in the late 1990s, and the Board of Commissioners owns it.

“This transition has proven to be slower than hoped and the sanctuary has fallen into disrepair,” Gregg said in a written statement. “There are several trees down across the trails making them difficult to navigate and the bridge is being washed away due to debris collecting underneath it from the many storms we had this spring.” He added that neighbors of the property have reported people gathering for illicit activities on the property since it is no longer gated and locked up at night.

“The Zona family is saddened to see their father’s legacy fall into disrepair and will continue to work with the county to try and resolve this situation,” the statement ends.

Gregg told the Chesterton Tribune that at least a dozen large trees are down, and “The neighbors are seeing drug dealing going on out there.” It’s disheartening as well, Gregg said, to see damage to the bridge that was donated by a local contractor just two years ago to complete a trail. “There’s so much debris flowing under there, It’s knocking the supports out.”

Gregg said members of the County Council and Commissioners were invited to the Sanctuary to discuss the Zona family’s and several former Wildlife Board members’ concerns about the property. Council members suggested it be shut down until a plan for maintenance is in place.

Commissioner Jim Biggs (R-North), for his part, said the Commissioners are planning to earmark $10,000 from their budget for maintenance on the property going forward. “That’s what we feel we can afford to dedicate,” he said.

The Wildlife Board used to get $25,000 a year, and Park Superintendent Walter Lenckos estimates maintenance will cost $18,000 to $20,000 a year, according to Biggs. The hope is that the County Council will “recognize the value of the property” and provide another $8,000 to $10,000 annually, Biggs continued.

“We’re committing $10,000. Hopefully, the Council can find the other $10,000 and keep it accessible to the public,” Commissioner Laura Blaney (D-South) said. Blaney also said COVID-19 threw off discussions about the Sanctuary, but “at the end of the day, we all want the same thing.”

Park Board Attorney David Hollenbeck said the Park Department has an agreement to collect trash, conduct light trail maintenance, and maintain the portable toilet in the Sanctuary’s parking lot, per a memorandum of understanding, but discussions on “a full delineation of the Park Department taking responsibility” are ongoing.

“The timing is good in that we’re in the budget process now. The County Council needs to be approached for funding to do that deferred maintenance and for operations,” Hollenbeck added.

The Commissioners value the property and believe it’s a major asset for the County in spite of the delay in transferring power, Biggs said. “We have a responsibility to take care of it, and that’s what we’re trying to do, “ he said. “Not everybody is happy with how long that takes.”

“We can’t be expected to fix overnight something that’s taken years to get into the shape that it’s in,” he added. It’s possible the Zona Sanctuary will come up at the Commissioner’s regular meeting today, Biggs said, though it is not on the meeting’s agenda.

This reporter asked if Biggs sees any parallel between the issue of the Calumet Trail and the Zona Sanctuary, since the Board of Commissioners was confronted by residents who were appalled at the unimproved state of the Trail last summer. The Trail runs north of U.S. 12 about eight miles between the Town of Porter and Michigan City, and residents say it’s been in a near unusable state for years.

Biggs said the two properties are vastly different, and the Calumet Trail presents more hurdles for development. In December 2019, the Board hired American StructurePoint as a design consultant to look into the possibility of relocating the Trail so that it no longer winds through a NIPSCO easement. Cooperation with NIPSCO and adherence to their development standards is perhaps the biggest hurdle, Biggs said.

Biggs said it’s his position that the County has done everything in its power to make good use of both properties and maintain them. He denied that there is a pattern of neglect.

The $10,000 Biggs and Blaney hope to provide for the Zona Sanctuary’s maintenance wouldn’t be available until next year. When asked what could be done this year, Biggs said the Commissioners will talk with the Park Department, and if they need a couple thousand dollars in extra funding for the bridge and downed trees this year, “I’m sure that could be done.” Blaney countered: “They have $14,000.”

Gregg said it’s true there is $14,000 left in Sanctuary funds, but the money is slated to go to the Park Department for the property’s maintenance. Gregg also said it’s no longer his responsibility to use that money since there’s no Wildlife Board, and the Commissioner’s own the property. “What if one of us went out there and got hurt? Would they have our backs?”, he asked.


Posted 9/1/2020




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