Aurora -- Six Aurora residents have filed an appeal to the state's Environmental Review Appeals Commission, claiming the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's granting of $4.7 million for the city to acquire the Aurora Golf Club is "unlawful and unreasonable."
The appeal claims the city was seeking the land "to pursue a hidden agenda ... The city has not been open and honest about its hidden agenda for this land and has acted to rush this application through without sufficient accountability."
Aurora Law Director Alan Shorr said he does not believe any of the residents' contentions have merit.
Shorr said he does not believe the city will end up being responsible for paying to acquire the golf course, but said, "That would be the subject of whatever happens in the appeal."
The state commission confirmed the appeal was received Jan. 23. It is scheduled to be heard by the commission in September.
The ERAC hears and resolves appeals resulting from technical and legal final actions taken by various agenices, including the Ohio EPA, and is the highest level of administrative appeal for final actions of those agencies. Decisions of the commission may be appealed to the courts.
The sale of the golf course property on Trails End, where residents have golfed for more than 80 years, became official Feb. 7 when the city gained the title from Aurora Recreation LLC.
"I hate to see a rich part of our history gone forever," said Councilman John Kudley, who was the only Council member who voted against the city acquiring the land.
The residents who filed the appeal live in homes adjacent to or near the golf course.
"I have spent a lot of time researching this matter, and I am very upset about the action of our city officials hiding their actions [during the acquisition process] from the citizens," said George Heisler, a resident who is leading the appeal.
Others listed in the appeal are Evelyn Heisler, J.R. Cicen, Marcia Laubacher, Robert E. Neer and Willlam Avalon.
The appeal alleges the "hidden agenda," in part, includes the operation of a party center / funeral home on a small part of the property adjacent to the city's acquisition and retained by Aurora Recreation LLC.
Asked about a hidden agenda, former Mayor Lynn McGill said, "That's laughable. Anything like that is completely untrue. Our only agenda was, we wanted to preserve the land and do the restoration work.
"If we could secure the land for bike and walking paths and restore the land, that's what we wanted to do. The Ohio EPA agreed it was a good application, and they funded it fully."
The appeal also alleges the city impaired the rights of citizens to offer public input, that the Ohio EPA could not have given the input more than just superficial consideration, that the environmental assessment for the property was flawed and that the city should not be permitted to use water remediation funds to acquire land that has not been demonstrated to have a water remediation issue.
The appellants request the commission vacate the EPA's awarding of the $4.7 million for the acquisition.
After the appeal was filed, a telephone prehearing conference took place in which the parties involved were told to file a joint status report.
McGill previously said the golf course would become a scenic park, and some golf cart paths would be turned into hike and bike trails.
"McGill gave the impression it would be a Metroparks-type park," Kudley said. "But all we can do [under EPA guidelines] is maintain a 4-foot strip on either side of the golf course path.
"So the idea was that we'd have a New York style park. I was skeptical from the beginning, and I support that there's a group of citizens who are questioning the fact, and what can be done about it." Kudley said.
As for the contention the Ohio EPA did not give adequate consideration, officials said they provided a 30-day public comment period that ended Dec. 24, 2012.
Shorr previously said the Ohio EPA "completed its review and found it to be in order. It satisfied their project parameter requirements."
The city submitted its application for funding of the project to the Ohio EPA in September 2012 after the proposal was approved by City Council last May.
Earlier this year, the Ohio EPA announced it would award the city $4.7 million to restore and protect more than a mile of the Aurora branch of the Chagrin River.
The decision, announced by Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally, meant the city would receive the funding through the Water Resource Restoration Sponsor Program to acquire 194 acres.
McGill previously said city officials were told by golf experts there is no way the city could make money if it operated the course, and said the previous owner, Hunter Banbury, no longer wished to operate it as a golf course.
Nally praised the project, saying, "The environmental gains to be realized are enormous. The city's proposal for this impaired section of stream provides a blueprint to improve water quality and is consistent with the Chagrin River Watershed Action Plan."
Aurora qualified for the funding based on the project's potential to enhance and protect Ohio's water resources.
Mayor James Fisher previously said Council is not interested in investing a lot of money in the land, but has set aside $50,000 in the 2013 budget for work there.
The WRRSP funding allows the city to acquire the acreage, remove manmade structures, restore the river's natural flow and floodplain, and forever protect the property.
Officials say the project will restore and protect more than 33 acres of forested riverbank, 14,000 feet of streams and 13 acres of high-quality wetlands.
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