The following article is republished from Chagrin Valley Today, the website of the Chagrin Valley Times. Our thanks to the Chagrin Valley Times for permission to republish the article here.
Chagrin Valley Times
Wednesday, May 11, 2016 11:45 pm
By JOAN DEMIRJIAN
To the chants of “Vote, vote, vote,” residents who filled the Russell Town Hall Monday made their wishes crystal clear to the Russell Park Commission. They wanted commissioners to vote right then in favor of purchasing Modroo farm on Hemlock Road and turn it into a township park. That, however, did not happen.
Nearly 200 people filled the town hall to capacity with many standing in the doorways. For safety reasons, members of the Russell Fire Department had to ask some observers to leave the building that has an official capacity of 73 people.
Lifelong resident Kurt Gabram summed up the issue calling for commissioners to “stick with the plan.” He was referring to the purpose of the levy designated to acquire parkland. Residents responded with a round of applause and shouts of affirmation.
The 52-acres of Modroo would cost an estimated $1.6 million.
Park commission members Linda O’Brien and Charlie Butters said they were not ready to take action Monday.
Residents originally approved a 1-mill park levy in 1992 which has been renewed over the years. It brings in about $200,000 annually, according to former park commissioner Roy Podojil, and there currently is about $1.3 million in the fund. The levy expires this year but will collect taxes through next year.
Mr. Butters previously said he wanted to see if the money could be used for another purpose like maintenance. Mr. Gabram on Mondayquestioned why the commission would consider diverting the money for something other than the original purpose.
Mr. Butters previously indicated that the Modroo property was overpriced. Mrs. O’Brien said Monday that, “We don’t have the money to close a deal tonight.”
The proposed Modroo purchase would consume the entire levy fund, the two commissioners said.
Joe Leslie, representing the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, told commissioners during the meeting that negotiation deadline with property owner Mary Modroo is fast approaching.
Ms. O’Brien then agreed to meet with Mr. Leslie. The land conservancy had been working for several years on the proposed Modroo purchase with two commissioners who recently resigned.
Geauga County Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell, who this year named Mr. Butters and Ms. O’Brien to the board, has yet to name the third commissioner.
Mr. Leslie said the Modroo farm involves two areas. Under the proposal the commission would buy 49 acres for about $1.4 million and the land conservancy would purchase 3-acres for about $200,000 to add to the park.
The historic farmhouse is on a separate 13.5-acre parcel and the barn is on another 5 acres on the north side of Hemlock Road. The goal now is to work with the present two commissioners to determine what they would be committed to, Mr. Leslie said.
Following regular business, commissioners on Monday gave the residents each two minutes to air comments. Most spoke on the value of keeping green space and how it has made Russell a desirable residential community.
Resident Tom Warren asked commissioners if they want to support park purchases.
Ms. O’Brien said she will make the “best decision for the township based on facts.” She noted money limitations and the desire to explore other available land.
When asked by Mr. Warren, both commissioners said they were independent and not beholden to Judge Grendell and his agenda.
Resident Al Klauss said his concern is that the park commissioners were appointed by Judge Grendell and there was no public input.
State law gives the judge authority to make the appointments.
Mr. Klauss asked if the commissioner allow residents to vote on the Modroo purchase issues, which was greeted with a round of applause from other residents.
Mr. Butters said the Ohio Revised Code limits what can be placed on the ballot.
Sharmyn Clark said a survey on residents’ opinions of the proposed Modroo purchase was conducted. There were 419 responses to the survey with 91 percent favoring preservation of the rural character of Russell and 89.35 percent supporting the proposed Modroo purchase. About 91 percent stated the township did not have enough open space and 89.37 percent favored levy money be used for its designated purpose of acquiring land for parks.
Shelley Chernin was questioned by commissioners because she rents in the township rather than owning a home. She said she pays taxes through her rent. She said she supported the purchase of Modroo.
Not everyone was convinced buying the property for more parks was a good idea. David Genske Jr. said his great-great grandfather built the Modroo farmhouse. His taxes will go up if every vacant piece of property becomes a park, he said.
Lowell Wolfe said the commission should stick to the budget and woodlands would be more appropriate for a park than a farm. Ages of township residents are going up and taxes are going up, he said.
Resident Tony Festa, noted that developed land with houses requires fire, police and road services and doesn’t lower taxes. “I don’t want to see high density development come here.”
Ed Wells said Russell’s natural beauty drew him to the township. Of the money in the park fund he said, “If we don’t use it, we will lose it.”
Mr. Butters noted that the Geauga County Auditor’s Office told him that it would be illegal for any entity to take the levy money already collected.
Paul Fantelli said, “The money is there to preserve our land.”
Mr. Podojil, who supported the purchase and thanked Mr. Leslie for his help over the past 10 years, said the money is there. “Just go spend it,” he said. “It is a pristine property with a meadow and flat land where people can walk. It is like a blank slate to do whatever the township wants,” he said.
Mr. Podojil said there are conservation easements on the park district’s 13 existing properties that would prevent the building of ballfields or parking lots.
Resident Mark Davis, drawing whistles, concluded, “Either that property is preserved as a gateway to Russell from Chagrin Falls, or it’s going to be developed.”