Russell park seals 15-year land lease with county district

Chagrin Valley Times

October 25, 2018

by Joan Demirjian

A 15-year lease agreement between the Russell Township Park District and the Geauga Park District was approved by Russell park commissioners Monday following a lengthy and emotional meeting with residents.

On Tuesday after an executive session, the Geauga Park District also approved the lease of 317 acres of Russell Township park district lands in a 2-1 vote. Commissioners Jackie Dottore and Howard Bates voted for the lease while board President Andrej Lah voted against it. Mr. Lah declined to comment on his vote. Under the agreement, Russell is leasing the land, effective Nov. 1, to the county district which will care for the property.

During the Monday meeting of the Russell board at the West Woods Park Nature Center, residents were given the opportunity to voice their opinions on the lease before the board went into executive session to discuss legal terms. The vote by board members chairman Scott Wayt, Donna Weiss Carson and Dennis Suhay was unanimous.

“The agreement is really a win-win. When the smoke clears residents will find that this is the best route to take, the most suitable and least costly to residents,” Ms. Weiss Carson said after the agreement was signed Monday.

It is basically a maintenance agreement for the larger parcels in the park district, she said.

Mr. Suhay noted that the leasing idea was not a quick decision.

Many residents lamented the move. “To surrender ‘our property,’” said Russell Citizens Park Board Chairman Roy Podojil, is to lose control of what was so hard to come by.

The initial 15-year lease, effective Oct. 22, was determined by both the Russell and Geauga park district boards as being the “most efficient, effective and better service to the residents of Russell Township if the lessee (Geauga Park District) operates and maintains certain properties” owned by the Russell Park District.

Properties to be leased to the Geauga Park District include the Upper Chagrin Preserve and its addition, the Westwoods Land Lab, the Modroo land and the Russell Uplands Preserve. All the lands have conservation easements with definite restrictions. Some smaller properties, amounting to about 105 acres, are not under the agreement. The Russell district has 422 acres in all.

The lease will automatically be renewed for additional terms of five years each unless the park districts mutually agree to terminate the lease at an earlier date, according to the agreement.

The Geauga Park District is agreeing to use the Russell land for developing, operating and maintaining the parks consistent with the purposes permitted by Ohio Revised Code 1545, the section the park was created under in 1984, and consistent with the conservation easements through the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. More than 95 percent of the Russell parkland is protected by conservation agreements.

Under the agreement, the Geauga Park District is permitted to cut trees, limbs, shrubs and brush as necessary to maintain access to roads, trails and facilities. No hunting of any kind, use of motorized vehicles or horse riding on trails is permitted without the Russell Park District’s consent.

The agreement prohibits oil, natural gas or other mineral drilling as well as gas pipelines “or related appurtenances” to be installed. The Geauga Park District will not pay rent but will pay for all necessary capital repairs.

The Russell park board must approve in writing all capital improvements to be made by the county park board. That could include construction of park-related storage facilities, gazebos, pavilions and similar structures necessary for the maintenance, operation and improvement of the parks, the agreement states.

Signs can indicate the Geauga Park District is operating the Russell parks. The county park board must maintain general liability insurance.

Mr. Suhay said on Monday that his board, known as the 1545 district, had reached out to the newer Russell Citizens Park District, to no avail.

The citizens park board was created last year by Russell voters who wanted township trustees to select board members. By-laws of the 1545 district call for the sitting county probate judge, now Timothy Grendell, to select its board members.

Both park boards have five-year levies on the Nov. 6 ballot. The ORC 1545 Russell Park District is asking voters to approve a 0.5-mill levy that would generate $130,000 a year. The ORC 511 park board is requesting approval of a 0.25-mill levy that would generate $65,000 annually.

The 1545 board hit a wall when the Geauga County Budget Commission refused to approve the park board’s annual budget due to minor accounting errors. That means the board would have to wait two years for levy revenues, if it passes, and thus limited funds to maintain the parklands.

Mr. Wayt noted that his board has been under attack by a “small vocal minority” and he accused Russell Trustee Jim Mueller of using “bullying tactics.”

Mr. Wayt also noted that the budget commission’s actions were “unprecedented.” The park board was berated and denied their budget, he said. On Tuesday, he added that “While we have not completed our financial audit, I appreciate all the work the auditor’s office has done to help us correct our books.”

At the meeting, Mr. Mueller, stated that volunteers could have helped with upkeep for a couple of years to lower maintenance costs.

Mr. Wayt encouraged residents to vote down the 1545 park board levy now that the lease is in place.

Park 511 advocate Shelley Chernin questioned the rush to lease the land.

“There have been conflicting reports on how much more you have left,” she said of 1545 board funds. “Why not wait another month before making the decision on the lease.”

Resident Sharmyn Clark said under the lease, Russell 1545 park board members won’t have control of the parkland purchased with levy money from township residents. “Once you sign that lease, there is no going back,” she said.

Resident Linda O’Brien, a former 1545 park board member, said leasing the land is the right thing to do.

Resident Mark McGrievy questioned what will be done if the Geauga Park District allows ATVs and turkey hunting on the property.

Geauga County Auditor Chuck Walder, the former Russell fiscal officer and current member of the budget commission, said the 1545 park budget number didn’t add up with anomalies in reported fund balances from 2015, 2016 and 2017. The fund balance is still not known, he added.

Resident Jerry Stefancin said he wants green space. He said he heard the 511 park board is in a vindictive mode and they should start doing what’s right for the township. Some people are making Mr. Wayt’s job impossible, he said. “Do what’s right for the township.”

Ms. Weiss Carson said 1545 park board members are preservation and conservation minded. She has spent 20 years volunteering for Russell and “I understand what Russell residents want.”

Chuck Campbell, a 45-year resident, said he has voted for the parks in the past. It seems like it has turned into a grudge match now. “Quit running to the press anytime anyone disagrees with you. Cut it out.” He said later that if the two Russell park boards don’t have a meeting of the minds, it eventually could lead to a “county takeover of the entire Russell (1545) parks.”

Mr. Podojil said, “We don’t have any money to help them (1545 board). They want people to hand them stuff.”

Later, he noted that several years ago when he was a member of the 1545 park district, the board didn’t have money. “We saved up and did so much with so little. We operated the Russell Uplands Preserve on less than $16,000 a year.”

The new ORC 511 board was given start-up money of $3,000 by town trustees, for bonding, Mr. Podojil said. “We have some money for a post office box.

“If the voters don’t pass the levy in November, we won’t have money to purchase properties,” he said of the 511 board.

Mr. Podojil said after the Monday meeting that he recalled the man hours spent by the (at the time) the Chagrin River Land Conservancy members, and “the long hours Terry Reis, Sandy Siegler and I put in the property, laying out trails, selecting bridge sites, putting out property line markers, working with the West Geauga football team to clear the property, raising the old house, cleaning, painting and putting a new floor to make the old barn useful to make something we as commissioners and our citizenry would long be proud of.

“It was yours Russell and I grieve with you Russell,” Mr. Podojil said.

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