BAINBRIDGE — Trustees said they have tried to meet with the Geauga Park District and amicably discuss the ongoing Frohring Meadows picnic shelter construction, to no avail. With that in mind, Trustees Lorrie Benza and Jeff Markley agreed Monday to authorize Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz to explore options for legal action against the county park district.
Trustee Kristina O’Brien’s brother, Andrej Lah, is a Geauga Park District commissioner, so she abstained from voting.
The issue involves the construction of the two picnic shelters close to Savage Road where nearby residents have complained that the structures are too close to their homes. The shelters are being built close together and will have fire pits and restrooms. The township zoning requires 20 feet between structures. Township trustees said the shelters are too close to each other, creating a safety issue.
Mr. Flaiz said the park district has not made any effort to comply with township zoning. “That is something we will pursue.” Under the Ohio Revised Code, the county prosecutor represents the township if that is what they seek to do, rather than hiring private counsel.
Park officials have said they do not need to seek zoning approval from the township.
Trustees met in executive session Monday after receiving a letter on that day from the Geauga Park District’s lawyer Todd Hicks saying the park district would not be meeting with the trustees to discuss the Frohring Meadows project.
Mr. Hicks said in the letter that while the park district appreciates the concerns noted by township trustees, “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 was taken into consideration during the planning phase by making a reasonable effort to comply with Bainbridge Township Zoning.”
Mrs. Benza said despite complaints from local residents, there is little the township can do when the matter involves another political entity such as the park district. The park district could make reasonable efforts to comply with township zoning, but they don’t have to, she noted.
She searched the Geauga Park District minutes and found references to planning Frohring Meadows in 2001. The district met with 25 residents with concerns about the project in 2005, Mrs. Benza said.
In 2006, records indicate that the park district was willing to address the concerns, she said of former board members and former park district director Tom Curtin. “They were willing to listen to residents and explore buffering techniques,” she said of mounding and planting prairie grass for shielding the lodge that is there now.
Mrs. Benza said she reached out to Geauga Park District Executive Director John Oros and the board and the understanding was that there should be reasonable compliance with township zoning.
It does not appear the park district took those reasonable steps, she said. She said she asked for a meeting so residents could be informed. The two shelters being built are right off the park entrance driveway.
Mrs. Benza said she was told by Mr. Oros that the request for a meeting would be turned over to the park district’s lawyer. Mr. Hicks of Thrasher, Dinsmore and Dolan said in the letter that the park district is not prepared to change the improvement plans now, since the project is well underway.
The park district made every effort possible during the planning stages for these improvements to comply with Bainbridge Township zoning regulations, the letter stated. “We believe that the improvements fully comply with the zoning requirements,” Mr. Hicks said. “If compliance has not been achieved, the park district has legitimate reasons which outweigh any township concerns to enforce particular zoning regulations.”
Mr. Hicks noted that the park district is not legally obliged to pursue the township’s zoning permit application process nor seek a conditional-use permit. The park district is an independent political taxing authority and 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, he noted.
When Paul Frohring gifted the 176 acres of farmland to the park district in 1995 it was by way of a quit claim deed and no restrictions were placed on the use of the property, Mr. Hicks said.
Mr. Markley said final planning of the additional structures at Frohring Meadows started in 2015 and the township did not initially hear about them.
At the time, Bainbridge Zoning Inspector Karen Endres reviewed the plans in 2018 and noted some zoning concerns. “We never got updated plans,” Mrs. Benza said. The biggest zoning concern involves safety because the structures are not the required 20 feet apart.
Mr. Markley said trustees have few options, either not responding to residents’ concerns or taking legal action.
Mrs. Benza said they would have liked to talk with the park district about the plans to buffer the picnic shelters from the residents. “We are just looking to have an amicable discussion.”
Chagrin Road resident Gil Myers said the park is well used. Only about four families are complaining, he said. “It’s out of balance.”
Former park district director Mr. Curtin noted at the time that an additional shelter could be added in the future. They were aware that the park would be popular and that there would be possibilities for expansion. Mr. Curtin had said they would work with the neighbors, Mrs. Benza noted.
Mr. Markley said in the past there was communication by the park district with the neighbors. Now, he said, “It’s all gone out the window.”
In response to the announcement that the township will be taking legal action, Mr. Myers said, “You are going to spend township money to take it to court. I find it a great mistake.” He added, “I think its nitpicking.”
“At the end of the day,” Mr. Markley said, it is the inability and unwillingness of the park district to have a conversation with the township.
“We are hoping they come to a meeting and that this (legal action) doesn’t go very far,” Mr. Markley said.