Bainbridge to Seek Injunction against Geauga Park District

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“Our zoning says structures need to be at least 20 feet apart, and these are not. When we brought that up to them, they said they liked them as they were, for architectural aesthetics.” – Lorrie Sass Benza

Following an executive session behind closed doors with Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, Bainbridge Township Trustees voted Monday night to seek an injunction against the Geauga Park District to order a halt to construction of two buildings at Frohring Meadows Park.

“We have to stand by our township zoning and enforce the application of our zoning regulations,” Trustee Lorrie Sass Benza said, adding the county should comply with local zoning when it makes improvements on county land within a township.

The controversy began about a month ago, when several Savage Road residents complained to trustees that the park district’s expansion of Frohring Meadows violated original informal agreements to provide buffers, such as mounds or tall grasses, to respect the neighbors’ privacy.

When township Zoning Inspector Karen Endres observed two new buildings under construction at the park were being built too close to each other, in violation of township zoning, she reported it to trustees, who invited park officials to attend a public meeting and address the issue.

“We would rather reach out with an olive branch than a court order,” Benza explained.

She said she was hopeful the county would be willing to respond to the township’s and residents’ concerns in a public meeting.

Benza said, in the past, as the county developed plans for Frohring Meadows Park, former GPD Director Tom Curtin and members of the park board met with trustees at Bainbridge Township Hall to hear concerns from the public about the placement of walking trails, parking lots and buildings.

“They came here several times,” Trustee Jeff Markley said. “We had open conversations back in 2006 and 2007. This was not planned to be a ‘gotcha’ meeting.”

Benza researched GPD minutes going back to 2001, during the development of Frohring Meadows, on 176 acres deeded to the county from the estate of the late Paul Frohring on Dec. 27, 1995.

“The minutes showed a willingness to meet with Bainbridge residents,” Benza said, and listed park district meetings in Bainbridge on May 11, 2005, and July 13, 2006.

“Those meetings were packed,” Markley recalled.

“They showed a willingness to listen to our residents, and they promised to explore buffering techniques, such as planting prairie grass, building mounds and adding setbacks,” Benza said. “So again, I reached out to the park district executive director and board members.”

She said, “I told them that their adding of a second parking lot and two picnic shelters had made some issues with our zoning inspector, and it didn’t seem that the district had taken those same reasonable steps this time. We’ll host a special meeting, keep it respectful and invite residents who had been expressing some concerns.”

Benza said she received a response from GPD Executive Director John Oros informing trustees he would ask their legal counsel to research the invitation to attend a public meeting.

On June 7, Benza emailed Oros the following, in part: “Of course, Mr. Oros. I totally understand the preference for legal guidance. I guess I was just hoping we could all chat amicably. Please don’t misunderstand this request. I understand that you and Judge Grendell had a very good conversation at the park with one of our affected residents. I also met with the resident and was perhaps hoping for a group discussion on the items discussed.”

On June 10, Benza received a letter from GPD counsel Todd Hicks, pointing out that, “under Ohio law, the park district is not legally obligated to pursue the township’s zoning permit application process nor seek a conditional use permit. Under current law, the park district, as an independent taxing authority, is obliged to attempt reasonable compliance with the township’s zoning regulations, but it has been previously determined such reasonable compliance does not include an obligation to pursue otherwise necessary permits and approvals.”

Hicks’ letter concluded, “Although we appreciate the concerns you have noted, we will not have a public meeting as you suggested in your email given that the improvements are underway and the well-being of residents were taken into consideration during the planning phase by making a reasonable effort to comply with Bainbridge Township zoning.”

At the June 10 trustees meeting, Markley said he realizes the county does not have to go through the local permit process, but other government bodies, such as the Geauga County Public Library and the Kenston school district, have discussed expansion plans with trustees in the past, in an atmosphere of courtesy, communication and cooperation.

“We just wanted a meeting,” Markley said.

Benza said trustees are concerned the two new buildings at the park are too close together, creating a safety issue.

“Our zoning says structures need to be at least 20 feet apart, and these are not,” she explained. “When we brought that up to them, they said they liked them as they were, for architectural aesthetics.”

Markley said trustees decided to go into executive session with Flaiz before Monday’s meeting, and determined the township had two options: do nothing about the residents’ concerns and their own concerns about safety, or take legal action.

He said once the park district got its attorney involved, it became clear to trustees which option they needed to take.

Trustee Kristina O’Brien, whose brother, Andrej Lah, is one of the three appointed county park commissioners, recused herself from the proceedings on the advice of counsel, she said.

“Under the advice of the Geauga County prosecutor, we will be filing legal action in the Geauga County Common Pleas Court, to enforce Bainbridge Township zoning,” Benza announced, after she and Markley took a formal vote.

“You’re kidding,” said resident Gil Myers. “You’re gonna spend money to take this to court, for four people who complained? I think you’re making a big mistake.”

Markley said that, since Flaiz will handle the case himself, it will not cost the township legal fees for outside counsel.

“We need to enforce our zoning regulations,” reiteratedBenza. “As trustees, we have an obligation to oversee the safety of all of our residents. The distance between the buildings is a safety concern.”

Added Markley, “If they move them, it will all be over.”

“This is nit picking, for Christ’s sake,” Myers told trustees. He added that GPD in recent years has “stonewalled everything,” but in his opinion, the district is doing a “wonderful job.”

Markley said the park district in previous years cultivated a willingness to cooperate with residents and townships, but more recently had adopted an arrogant attitude.

“Because they are arrogant,” Myers agreed.

Markley said the park district does not allow public input at its meetings.

Benza said the former atmosphere of courtesy and cooperation from GPD has changed in recent years.

“Does it comply with Grendell’s tenure?” Myers asked. “Where does the arrogance come from?”

Trustees said they didn’t know, but the spirit of cooperation seemed to change after Curtin’s tenure as director ended. His long contract as director was not renewed by the park board in November 2013.

Geauga County Probate Court Judge Tim Grendell, appointed to the position in 2011, oversees the appointment of park commissioners.

Myers asked Benza if she had been surprised at the park district’s response to trustees’ invitation.

“I was disappointed,” Benza said. “We had an opportunity to have an amicable discussion and it’s unfortunate that we can’t. Ok. We tried.”

She said the application for an injunction would be filed soon, seeking a court order to stop construction of the two buildings in question.

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