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Chagrin Valley Times
Posted: Wednesday, June 8, 2016 11:45 pm
By JOAN DEMIRJIAN
RUSSELL – Trustees are seeking to establish a new park district that would be controlled by the township.
The goal is to have a district where park commissioners are appointed by trustees and not the Geauga County Probate Court, trustees said during a June 1 meeting where they agreed to take the necessary steps outlined under the Ohio Revised Code Chapter 511.
The move is in reaction to an ongoing issue before the Russell Park Commission where commissioners are questioning a proposal to spend about $1.5 million to buy 52 acres of the Modroo farm and turn it into a park. A vocal group of residents favor the proposed purchase, initiated by former commissioners saying that an ongoing levy was approved by voters for parkland purchases. The Western Reserve Land Conservancy was advising former commissioners on the proposed Modroo purchase.
A new park system would have the ability to buy land including Modroo farm, Trustee Justin Madden said.
The Russell Park Commission was established in 1984 by a judgment of the Geauga Probate Court acting on a request by township trustees.
Russell Park Commissioners Charlie Butters and Linda O’Brien recently were appointed by Geauga Probate Judge Timothy Grendell, who is in the process of filling the third seat.
Mr. Butters and Ms. O’Brien said they want to obtain additional appraisals on the land. Mr. Butters said the proposed $30,000 an acre price is too expensive.
Mr. Madden said the decision to set up a new park district under control of the township “Is a very positive step in the right direction.”
Geauga County Assistant Prosecutor Kate Jacob is assisting with the wording of a petition which will then be circulated among township residents. The petition needs one-tenth of the total votes cast in the township’s last general election. Officials estimated 400 signatures will be needed.
Mr. Madden said he believes a large number of residents will sign the petition because of the interest in the Modroo issue. The petition would then be presented to township trustees to create the park district under state law.
The petition must be certified by the Geauga County Common Pleas Court and the Geauga County Board of Elections also reviews it to see that it includes the required number of signatures.
Township trustees would appoint commissioners for the new district and determine what assets are needed for the park district. A 0.5-mill levy would be a good starting point for the new park, they said.
Once the district is set up, it would have the legal authority to place a funding issue on the ballot. “The decision makers are the township trustees,” Mr. Madden said.
Mr. Madden noted township trustees have been discussing the issue of establishing the new park district for some time with the township’s legal counsel. “We did not see any signs by the current park commissioners that they will respect the vote of residents so it is time for us to take action,” he said of the desire to buy the Modroo land.
The current park district has more than $1 million in funds from a levy. The Geauga County Budget Commission is expected to question why those levy funds are not being used, Mr. Madden said.
Trustee Jim Mueller said a park district created under Chapter 511 will allow better control by the township. There is also a process that can be taken to dissolve the current park district and transfer its land to the new district.
“We will suggest that the $1.3 million in park levy funds under the current park district be returned to the taxpayers,” Mr. Mueller said. The county budget commission has asked what is going to be done with the levy funds, he noted.
That levy is expected to expire next year, and another levy would be proposed under the newly established park district, he said.
Mr. Mueller noted that the Ohio Revised Code actually allows more than one park district in the township.
“The short-term goal is to create a new park district and put a levy on the ballot in November,” Mr. Mueller said. If the levy passes, the new district would be committed to acquire all of the Modroo farm, he said.
Russell Trustee Gary Gabram said trustees have laid the ground work and agree to move forward. “This is a long-term situation and we are going to take it into our own hands,” he said of the new park district.
“I’m happy we are getting the ball moving to accomplish what the residents wanted,” he said of the purchase of the Modroo farmland for parkland.
“In the long run, we should be better off if the township is in control. It’s our money,” he said of what residents have voted on.
Fiscal Officer Chuck Walder said the process to set up the new park district is lengthy.
“But we have to start somewhere.”
The auditor, treasurer and prosecutor of the county would determine what could be done with the existing levy money.
Resident Tom Warren said he “admires the township trustees’ efforts to bring control of Russell parks back to its residents. I will help with the petition drive.”
Russell Resident Shelley Cherwin said she also will help circulate the petitions. “I view it as a long-term solution,” she said of the second park district. “Its formation opens up some options.”
Resident Barbara Berkeley said the group supporting the purchase of the Modroo property would circulate petitions for signatures.
Residents said they remain hopeful that Mr. Butters and Ms. O’Brien will move forward with the purchase of the Modroo property.
The next park commission meeting is June 13 when new appraisals of the Modroo property should be discussed.
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