The following story appeared on Chagrin Valley Today, the website of the Chagrin Valley Times and the Geauga Times Courier, on March 8. Our thanks to the Chagrin Valley Times for permission to republish the article here.
Chagrin Valley Times
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
By JOAN DEMIRJIAN
Russell Township Park District Commissioners hired two appraisers in preparation to sell 22 acres of parkland on Dines and County Line roads drawing strong reactions from residents, township trustees and even the Geauga probate judge.
Park Commissioners Linda O’Brien, Charlie Butters and David Gensketo passed a motion to spend $3,000 on appraisals after emerging from an executive session during an extremely short Feb. 27 meeting at West Woods Nature Center. Ms. O’Brien banged down the gavel quickly adjourning the session after refusing to give residents crowding the room an explanation or time to ask questions.
One resident called it “shameful,” and former Russell Trustee Greg Studen said, “It’s a travesty of open meeting laws.” Some of the audience chanted “Shame, shame, shame,” as commissioners quickly exited the room.
Russell Township Trustee Justin Madden was at the park district meeting and noted that commissioners refused to name the appraisers or identify the property in question.
In reaction Russell Township trustees met in executive session with Assistant Geauga County Prosecutor Kate Jacob on March 1. “We are fully prepared to defend our zoning,” Trustee Jim Mueller said.
The 22 acres, which have a conservation easement prohibiting development, were purchased in the 1990s for $500,000 by the township park district.
Following the meeting, Geauga Probate Judge Timothy Grendellsent a letter to park commissioners stating that according to state law, the park commission “cannot sell any land without the approval of the probate court.”
Normally, he said he would wait until the park board submits a request for approval of a potential sale, but in this case, “I feel obliged to bring to your attention my concerns to avoid any rumor mongering or misinformation, which appears to have already begun, as well as any unnecessary expenditure of public funds.”
He said he will not approve any sale of park property if it would adversely affect the preservation of the property, result in any change to the natural condition of the property or permit development of any kind. The judge said it is imperative that all property owned by the township park districtbe preserved, conserved and protected.
This week, Park Commissioner Butters stated owners who sold the land to the park district in the 1990s retained 8 acres adjacent to the 22 acres.
Earlier this year, Paul Kiebler bought the 8 acres where he plans to build a house. He approached the park district about buying the adjacent property, Mr. Butters said, and is amendable to the current deed restrictions.
“He would like to buy the 22 acres from us and we said as long as it remains passive park zoning. He has a firm offer on the table and the appraisers will decide,” Mr. Butters said.
“He has offered a significant price and it will be protected and unusable for any use,” Mr. Butters said. The 22 acres are not accessible as a park because the land is “totally unbuildable, with swamp land and deep ravines.” There is no parking area and the deed does not allow paved trails. “It’s too small for a park,” Mr. Butters said.
“Our legal counsel advised the buyer’s counsel that the park board would never sell the parcel without imposing a perpetual conservation easement that would prohibit any development, and would be similar to the one normally employed by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy which allows only passive use of the land and enforceable by the park board and possibly the conservancy if the terms could be worked out with the buyer and conservancy,” Mr. Butters said. “Those terms were acceptable to the buyer.”
The next move is to obtain two appraisals for the property recognizing there would has to be a public bidding process, Mr. Butters said.
The Dines parcel is held by a deed restriction, enforceable by only the current owner, Mr. Butters said, but the right to enforce will be passed on to the buyer. “The park board would never jeopardize the passive-use designation.”
The park district’s lawyer consulted with the probate court on how the sale process would proceed, Mr. Mr. Butters said.
“As a result, the court issued a letter to the park district,setting forth three important criteria that must be met before the court would approve a sale of the Dines parcel,” he said. “Those criteria are to not allow any sale to adversely affect the preservation of the property, result in any change to the natural condition of the property and that would permit development of any kind on the property. The court also stated that any sale by the park board can’t result in the park district having any obligation to fund the subsequent ownership after the sale.”
He said the park board members have no problem complying with the requirements of the court.
“The reality is that nothing will change on the Dines parcel,” Mr. Butters said. “There is no need for threats of litigation or intimidation by public officials or residents and our constituents, the taxpayers of Russell, will be benefitted by having additional funds for land conservation while the Dines parcel remains conserved and back on the tax duplicate.
“Proceeds from the sale will give more flexibility for developing more parks per our by-laws and goals of 1984,” Mr. Butters said. “We are not selling it for development. We never would.”
If anyone tried to change the passive status of the land, Mr. Butter said, “we’ll fight it tooth and nail.”
Splitting it into lots would be difficult because of unsuitable conditions for septic systems, with its creeks and ravines, Mr. Butters noted.
In regards to the Feb. 27 meeting, Mr. Butters said the board had to vacate the room before the center closed for the day.
Residents who lingered after that meeting felt otherwise.
Russell Trustee Jim Mueller said at the township trustees meeting on March 1, “There is a war going on in Russell Township. Judge Grendell staged a hostile take-over of our local park district. It’s really the Grendell Park Board.”
“This is the first time in history of Geauga County that someone charged with maintaining and growing our park system has tried to sell park property,” Mr. Mueller said. “When we did our 15-year survey of what people wanted, the No. 1 thing they liked was open space in Russell.
“The cornerstone of Russell has always been our zoning. It’s the strongest and best open-space zoning in Geauga County,” Mr. Mueller said.
“I don’t care how much Charlie Butters and the Grendell Park Board tries to justify this, it still involves selling Russell Township parkland to a private person for housing. That’s never been done before or proposed in Geauga County,” Mr. Mueller said. If it is private property, people will not have an opportunity to ever walk it and enjoy its natural beauty. “They will be trespassing.”
Russell Fiscal Officer Chuck Walder, also at the park board meeting, said residents’ questions went unanswered. Mr. Butters frequently asks questions at Russell trustees meetings and is always permitted to speak, Mr. Walder said.
He noted Ms. O’Brien signed a paper for right of first refusal on a purchase of the 8 acres but there is no record of the park board giving her the authority to sign the paper. “They are doing business behind closed doors,” Mr. Walder said.
“There is a trust issue between the park commissioners and the public,” Mr. Walder said. “We have to protect our parks and zoning,” Mr. Walder said. He questioned Judge Grendell’s appointment of park board members who do not let people speak. “Why isn’t he appointing someone else who believes in public comments. He can replace the present commissioners. He can put in people who do take public comments.”
Mr. Studen said the property is next to land preserved by the Geauga Park District. The Russell parkland is a beautiful wooded area. As a former township trustee for eight years and on zoning for 12 years, he noted that of the parklands, “People voted for a levy to buy these properties. Why is the park board trying to sell the land. Why don’t they tell us what is going on and be open about it?”
Christina Livers, also a former Russell Trustee, was at the park board meeting at West Woods. “The least they could have done was to explain to us what they were doing,” Mrs. Livers said. The concern is that if the land is combined with the 8 acres, the deed restrictions on the park property will no longer hold, she added.
Shelley Chernin said, “It’s hard to know what to do when we don’t know what they are up to. There is no transparency and everything is done in secrecy.
“I am concerned about the vast amount of money this park board is spending to circumvent the wishes of Russell residents,” Ms. Chernin said referring to attorney fees.“Funds are being depleted for destroying the parks.”
Resident Sharymn Clark made a public information request this week to Mr. Butters, asking for expenses incurred by the park district. Information for 2016 shows more than $41,000 was spent on legal services.