The following article appeared in the print edition only of the Chagrin Valley Times and the Geauga Times Courier. Our thanks to the Chagrin Valley Times for permission to republish the article here.
Chagrin Valley Times
May 26, 2016 (A19)
By Joan Demirjian
Geauga County Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell conducted a session in his courtroom in Chardon on Tuesday that included several individuals he had subpoenaed to be questioned on matters surrounding the Modroo farm property in Russell.
The Russell Township Park Commission has been considering buying about 52 acres of the farm for a proposed $1.5 million to turn it into parkland using levy funds approved by voters specifically for land acquisition.
The session on Tuesday was quiet and subdued in contrast to previous park district meetings when many residents voiced their support for the farmland purchase, a process started by previous park commissioners. New park Commissioners Linda O’Brien and Charlie Buttes have said they want to obtain appraisals of the property before making any decisions. A third commissioner is yet to be appointed by Judge Grendell.
The judge questioned several people he subpoenaed. He noted from the beginning that while he has the authority by state law to appoint park commissioners, he has no vote on park matters including the proposed property purchase.
“That decision rest solely with the park commission,” he said. He also made it clear he has no interest in developing the Modroo property. He said that he would prefer if it could be purchased at a reasonable price by the park district, he said. He also noted it was his job to determine the compliance of the park commission members with their duties.
Much of the questioning by Judge Grendell centered on the costs of the land and appraisals. Mary Modroo of Modroo Real Estate LLC has 71 acres.
She entered into a contract with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy in April of 2016 for 52 acres. It expired and a 30-day extension was made. One contract is for $1.35 million for 49 acres and the other contract is for three additional lots at $200,000. The land conservancy obtained the appraisals.
Paul Curen who provided appraisals noted, while being questioned by the judge, that 60 acres was appraised at 1.2 million in October of 2015.
Richard Cochran, president and CEO of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, said the conservancy has worked with Russell “off and on” toward purchasing the Modroo property since 1990.
There is no contract at this time between the land conservancy and Russell Park District, but there are efforts to negotiate. Asked by the judge why the conservancy doesn’t buy the land, Mr. Cochran said, “We might,” but carving out parcels is the only way to finance it at this point.
Among others interviewed by the judge were Joe Leslie, director of acquisitions for the land conservancy, and former park commissioners Sandford Siegler and Roy Podojil. Mr. Podojil said former commissioners discussed the property with the land conservancy in 2015 and were willing to discuss an offer, he said.
We didn’t know the acreage at that stage,” he said. At the time, the park district had $1.3 million in its land-purchase funds, and they would have had to “take a note” to buy the land.
Mr. Siegler also noted that the park district had an interest in the Modroo property “for a long time.” Asked why no offer was made in 2015, Mr. Siegler said probably because they didn’t have the money at the time.
Under questioning by Judge Grendell, current Commissioner Mr. Butters said he was not aware of the Modroo property interest when he was appointed. Asked if the park board intends to buy it to “flip it” for development, Mr. Butters said, “No.”
Mr. butters recently voted to not pursue working with the land conservancy on the land purchase because there was not enough information yet, including an appraisal.
He said it would be reckless to not obtain at least two independent appraisals. “I couldn’t live with myself without doing due diligence.” He added, “I would love to see it preserved.”
The park commission met May 16 and he and Ms. O’Brien authorized up to $2,000 for independent appraisals. “I’d like to see what other appraisals say and see how to get this deal done,” Mr. butters said.
Ms. O’Brien said she also needs more information. “I would like to have a vision and goal and how it would be used for the benefit of the residents,” she said.
Judge Grendell said at the conclusion of the hearing that he will be making a decision on the status of the two commissioners and write his opinion.
Afterward, Barbara Berkeley, resident and supporter of the purchase, said, “It appeared the intent was to cast suspicion on the motives of Western Reserve Land Conservancy and our previous long-serving commissioners.”
David Partington noted, “It was all hardball questions to the land conservancy and softball and easy lobs” to the two present park commissioners. “There is a definite animosity between the Tea Party and the judge and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.”