ELYRIA — Elyria Schools plans to buy land owned by the district’s director of business services that is adjacent to the new sports complex site on the city’s south side.
Jim Wall, the same employee disciplined earlier this school year after he instructed one of the district’s maintenance employees to take a district-leased vehicle from Elyria High School to a house Wall owns on East Avenue for personal use, is the landowner, Superintendent Tom Jama said Monday during a meeting at The Chronicle-Telegram.
Jama, who wanted to explain in advance of a school board meeting Wednesday why the district was contemplating buying land owned by a district employee, called the meeting.
“When we campaigned for this bond issue, we talked about not needing to purchase any land,” he said. “But there is always that possibility. You never know what you are going to get into with a $140 million project.”
Wall closed on the property Nov. 10 — just three days after voters approved a 3.86-mill, 35-year bond issue to build new elementary and middle schools and the sports complex — for $8,000 and spent an additional $9,850 to demolish a foreclosed home and garage on the property. The district will purchase the property for the sale price of $17,850, the cost of the full land purchase and demolition.
Wall will not make a profit, Jama said.
The Lorain County auditor’s market land valuation of the property is $20,550.
The board will vote on the matter during Wednesday’s board meeting 5:30 p.m. at the Administration Center, 42101 Griswold Road.
Jama said purchasing Wall’s property in the 300 block of Oberlin Road did not come into play until recently. A report from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers said wetlands at the Ely Stadium site will prevent the district from building the complex in the way previously designed. A revised design now requires about 4 acres of land to remain wetlands and the practice field to move.
“We are losing 232 parking spaces due to wetlands that we will get back in part with the purchase of this property,” Amy Higgins, the district’s spokeswoman, said during the meeting.
Jama said Wall did buy the Oberlin Road property with prior knowledge of the district’s plans. However, it was a personal decision with no advisement from the district — district officials didn’t anticipate needing the land in question, Jama said.
The parcel went up for sheriff’s sale in October.
“He came to us then and told us about this property, but we were focused on the bond issue campaign and not looking to buy any land,” Jama said. “He was not instructed to do that. We had no knowledge of that. I think his intentions were to hopefully save it for the district.”
After a year of negotiations and back-and-forth talks over the wetlands, Jama said he learned in January from the district’s architect, the Westlake-based Architectural Vision Group headed by principal architect Syed Abbas, that moving the design around would be necessary. It was Abbas who told the district Wall owned the land, Jama said.
District attorney Howard Lane, who has represented The Chronicle-Telegram legally, sought and received an opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission in advance of the real estate purchase. Wall is subject to a state law that does not allow public officials to profit from public contracts. The advisory opinion said the district could only purchase the property if it was necessary, no other property of similar nature is available and through an open purchase with the board having full knowledge of Wall’s role as the property owner.
Higgins said the parcel is contiguous to land the district owns on Oberlin Road and was going to use for the new entrance to the sports stadium. Wall’s property will allow for smoother ingress and egress while also making it possible to regain 229 of the 232 parking spaces lost to wetlands.
A report to the board from former Superintendent Paul Rigda, a hired consultant on the master plan, said that fewer parking spaces would be unacceptable in the community.
“Losing 232 parking spaces leaves the complex far under the necessary number of spaces recommended for a complex the size of what is being built,” he wrote. “Additionally, leaving 393 parking spaces is far fewer than what was provided in the current stadium and far fewer than what the community expects. The community expects 625 spaces. (Architectural Vision Group) originally designed for 625.”
The new design, which includes the purchase of Wall’s property, gets close to that.
Rigda wrote that the proposed stadium entrance is not finalized as the district must acquire a triangle-shaped area of privately owned property to bridge into the district’s property from Oberlin Road. The city provided the district with a narrow parcel several years ago for entering and exiting the stadium from Oberlin Road, Rigda wrote.
Wall has a real estate license and owns several properties in Elyria as a private landlord. Jama said it is not unusual for Wall to be aware of for-sale properties, notify the district of properties for sale near school property or to purchase properties for his own real estate business.
“We feel strongly this is the best option for the district,” Jama said. “When you think about it, it is a good thing he did this because it will be a benefit to the district.”
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