Aurora -- An appeal by six residents filed with 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 property was "unlawful and unreasonable," continues to move at a snail's pace.
"There is a long process left," Aurora Law Director Alan Shorr said.
A hearing, which originally was scheduled this month by the ERAC, is not listed on its upcoming docket. "We don't have a hearing scheduled," said Jon Hsu, a staff attorney with the commission.
The appeal was filed Jan. 23. Hsu said the commission is waiting on a joint status report.
Hsu said the deadline for information for a joint status report to be received was Sept. 3, and as of Sept. 6 the commission had not received the report.
George Heisler, who is heading the group that filed the appeal, said the appelants had not heard back from their attorney as of Sept. 8 about the status of the ERAC hearing.
"I will do everything on my part to fight the parties and the media to get the truth out. Citizens of Aurora were clearly duped by the mayor and lost a valuable asset to the city [the golf course]. It is clear to me this whole deal stinks to high heaven."
"Parties let us know what they want to do with the case -- if they'd like to proceed," Hsu said. "For example, if they're still working on a settlement, or if they feel a settlement is not going to be a possibility, they would propose a case management schedule. At the end would be a hearing."
"The parties dictate the schedule," Hsu added. "They give us dates on how fast they'd like to proceed."
Shorr said normally a court says, "Here is when we're going to have hearings, etc. But here, they try to get the parties to agree on some things, and the commission goes along with it from a timing standpoint."
Shorr said the Ohio attorney general's office prepared a response regarding the city's status report and circulated it to the city's law department to be approved. It will be filed "soon," he added.
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."
"If the public was properly allowed into the process, the state would not have wasted $4.7 million [on the project]," Heisler wrote in an email to the Advocate. "One much better option could have gotten the city an almost free golf course and up to 10 times more in property tax income."
Shorr said the city followed the proper procedures in approving its application to the EPA and the city kept citizens involved in the process. "The citizens were very involved," Shorr said.
The agreement between the city and EPA requires that the golf course land revert to a natural state, with some walking paths allowed to remain.
Heisler said he believes residents were not adequately notified in the Aurora Golf Club case as they were in the Spring Hill Farm deal. Shorr disagreed, saying, "The only difference is, there was not a citizens group that was opposed to [the Spring Hill Farms deal, as there is with the Aurora Golf Club deal]."
In the Spring Hill Farm agreement, the city acquired about 150 acres of pristine wetlands in a preservation project, but there was not a restoration piece attached to it, Shorr said. Spring Hill Farm is on East Pioneer Trail on the extreme eastern border of Aurora.
The sale of the Aurora Golf Club 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. The residents who filed the appeal live in homes adjacent to or near the golf course.
In addition to Heisler, the other residents are Bill Avalon, Evelyn Heisler, J.R. Cicen, Marcia Laubacher and Robert E. Neer.
The Ohio EPA announced last year 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 meant the city would receive the funding through the Water Resource Restoration Sponsor Program to acquire the 194 acres.
Aurora qualified for the funding based on the project's potential to enhance and protect Ohio's water resources.
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.
The ERAC hears and resolves appeals resulting from technical and legal final actions taken by various agencies, 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.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4187
Twitter: Mike Lesko@MikeLesko_RPC