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Columbia trustees accept unpopular development deal

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    Columbia Township residents stand in opposition to a settlement agreement between the township and MLM Developers over a planned 660-unit housing development on the former Emerald Woods Golf Course and adjacent properties. Trustees voted 3-0 to accept the agreement and end a lawsuit against them in Lorain County Common Pleas Court.

    DAVE O'BRIEN / CHRONICLE

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Columbia Township residents stand in opposition to a settlement agreement between the township and MLM Developers over a planned 660-unit housing development on the former Emerald Woods Golf Course and adjacent properties. Trustees voted 3-0 to accept the agreement and end a lawsuit against them in Lorain County Common Pleas Court.

DAVE O'BRIEN / CHRONICLE Enlarge

COLUMBIA TOWNSHIP — Following a contentious and heated public meeting over a proposed 660-unit development planned in the township, trustees grudgingly voted unanimously Monday to go ahead with a settlement agreement that will end a lawsuit against them in Lorain County Common Pleas Court.

The settlement affects more than 356 acres of property, including the nearly 305 acres on which Emerald Woods Golf Course once sat. The golf course closed in 2017, and has been planned for development.

The decision was widely unpopular among the more than 200 Columbia Township and Columbia Station residents who packed the Columbia High School gymnasium. Not a single resident who stood up during the more than two-hour public comment portion of the meeting spoke in favor of the agreement.

Trustees said their hand was forced.

“None of us like this agreement,” Trustee Mark Cunningham said, adding that the township’s rural nature was always likely to change.

“When I moved in, I wanted to be the last person to move into Columbia Township, but that’s not gonna happen,” he said prior to casting his vote.

MLM Development wants to build more than 660 residences, at 1.85 units per acre. Up until the agreement was reached, the number of units per acre ran counter to township zoning, with township officials wanting fewer and the developers wanting more than 2 units per acre.

Residents cited increased traffic, flooding, lack of infrastructure, and increased burden on their schools and fire department and a possible increase in crime among their objections to the plan.

“We don’t want you here!” one resident shouted at representatives of MLM Development, who did not speak or take any questions during the hearing. “Go back where you came from!” another resident shouted.

In the agreement, which must still be approved by a Lorain County Magistrate Jim Blaszak, the township and MLM agreed, among other items, that:

  • “all buildings shall have a minimum 300-foot front building line setback,”
  • a recreation fee of $900 will be paid to the township for each zoning certificate issued for each individual unit,
  • evergreen trees 6 feet tall or higher will be planted every 10 feet along the property’s eastern boundary line, and
  • no apartments will be built unless permitted in a future zoning resolution or unless otherwise approved by trustees.

Township Trustee Mike Musto said trustees still have not seen the developers’ plans, and that the court has told the township developers don’t have to show the plans to them. He said the township could be on the hook for between $2 million and $6 million plus more in attorney fees “if we lose” the lawsuit in court.

Township attorneys “advised us to accept this agreement and move forward,” he told the crowd. No other interested parties came forward to purchase the Emerald Woods property, Musto said, including Lorain County Metro Parks.

At $6 million, “they don’t have the money,” he said.

Multiple residents encouraged the elected board to “have a backbone” and fight the developers, no matter the cost.

Musto, Trustee Dick Heidecker and Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Gerald Innes said that could force the township into bankruptcy, resulting in the loss of the fire department and road department and bringing township services to an end.

“Insurance has already paid $80,000 in legal fees,” Heidecker said. “I don’t want to lose the fire department.”

Innes, who represented the trustees in court and took some flak of his own during the meeting, told residents they were likely to lose the case and that defying a court order would certainly bankrupt the township.

“You are going to be developed,” he told the crowd. “The magistrate who looked at the expert reports said this area should be ‘high density.’”

“The legal system is not fair,” Musto told the crowd. “I know you’ve heard that before, but the legal system is not fair.”

Residents further accused trustees of not following their own comprehensive plan, which they spent years creating. They asked trustees to “remember who you work for” and called the plan “a bad deal” and “backwards.”

You’re setting a precedent where they can come in and roll over you,” one resident told trustees. “You sold out the residents.”

“These developers don’t care about this community, they just want to make their money and bail,” said another.

“This is all about money. This isn’t about anything other than cash,” Columbia Station resident Lonnie Blankenship told trustees.

John Slagter, a partner with the law firm Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, which represents MLM Development, said cities and townships have to follow Ohio law and “can’t just zone the way they want,” while property owners “have legal rights.”

“This agreement was a compromise on both sides,” he said. Developers “wanted a higher density” than 1.85 dwellings per acre — two units per acre, Slagter said — but compromised.

“This settlement is less than that,” he said. “Legally, the developers, under the law, had a very strong case. ... This was hundreds of hours of depositions, hours upon hours of hearings and multiple expert reports. This wasn’t either side giving in.”

Contact Dave O’Brien at (440) 329-7129 or do’brien@chroniclet.com. Follow him at @daveobrienCT on Twitter.


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