The Ohio Supreme Court ruled last Friday that a rezoning issue linked to a proposed $200 million mixed-use winery development will be before Solon voters on Nov. 6.
The court ordered Solon Finance Director Matthew Rubino to certify the petition and deliver it to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections to be placed on the fall ballot.
Residents are being asked to change the zoning of land on Bainbridge Road from single-family residential to a new classification with six zones that would allow for the Kerem Lake plan that includes restaurants, retail shops, housing, a hotel, underground parking lot and more.
The project is being proposed by BNH Enterprises Corp. of Cleveland Heights for a 103-acre site owned by Company CEO Yisrael Harris.
Anne Yeager, the spokeswoman for the High Court, said last week that justices voted 6-1 in favor of the request from the five Solon residents who filed the suit to place the issue on the November ballot. The city will also be required to pay legal fees of the plaintiffs, she said.
At issue was whether council needed to take any action on the matter at all. Council members on Aug. 6 declined to suspend the rules to approve the petition as an emergency, missing the Aug. 8 county elections board deadline for placing issues on the ballot. After that, the residents sued the city, elections board and others.
On Monday, the city certified the initiative petition as ordered by the court, Solon Law Director Thomas G. Lobe said.
The High Court declined to rule on whether Solon’s charter requirement for a majority vote both in the affected ward and citywide on zoning issues was constitutional.
In regards to the petition, the majority of justices ruled that once signatures were collected, certified and posted for the required period of time, the petition should have then been forwarded by the finance director to the elections board. Council had no need to take any action, the court ruled.
The only dissenting vote came from Justice R. Patrick DeWine who stated that home rule allows cities to have procedures that differ from state practices.
This has been a longtime practice in Solon, Mr. Lobe said.
“Since 1988, the Solon City Charter has had a provision for the procedure and process of initiative petitions,” Mr. Lobe said. “Every administration, council and law director for the last 30 years has interpreted that provision as we have currently.
“The Supreme Court found that provision to be ‘inartful’ and ‘not clear’ and as such, initiative petitions do not go to council for any action,” Mr. Lobe said.
The provision Mr. Lobe referred to states that “council submits,” meaning that any land-use change has gone to council for action.
The court decision states that Article 14 in the Solon charter is not clear enough to control the process, Mr. Lobe said, “and council doesn’t submit anything, which is contrary to how we have done it” for the last three decades.
Based on this decision, council does not have any control over the procedure moving forward and general (state) law applies, Mr. Lobe said.
Solon now needs to rewrite this charter provision for clarity, he added.
But, “the Supreme Court did not find anything unconstitutional in Solon’s charter,” Mr. Lobe noted.
The Harrises and the residents who filed the suit are “very happy about the decision,” Alan Melamed, of Melamed Communications, said on behalf of BNH. “What it does is it affirms their goal all along which is to take the issue directly to the citizens of Solon.
“They have an opportunity to have a final voice in a decision on the rezoning,” Mr. Melamed continued. “We look forward to working with the city and we want to be partners with them and look forward to the conversations over the next couple of months.”
Mayor Edward H. Kraus said city officials are disappointed at the ruling.
“I did not agree with the Supreme Court decision,” Mayor Kraus said. “We have the absolute right to defend our charter. I think our charter is clear and spelled out, but obviously the Supreme Court has spoken. I felt our briefs and our arguments were very clear on the defense of our charter. All we have as a community is home rule.”
Residents of the Thornbury development adjacent to the winery site have publically expressed opposition to the sprawling proposal saying it would disrupt their quiet neighborhood.
Mr. Melamed said this week that developers intend to meet with the community and provide full details of the plan including the environmental, traffic and economic impact of the project. This will be done over the course of the next 60 days, he said.
“Now that we know we are going to be on the ballot in November, we are proceeding with a professional analysis of those issues,” Mr. Melamed said. “Our intention all along was to be able to educate the public.”
Mr. Melamed continued that “people talked about there not being a plan, but a plan was presented back in April. The planning commission never allowed a discussion on it, because there needed to be a creation of a rezoning district before that could happen.”
Mayor Kraus, who is on the planning commission disagreed. “That is not my understanding,” Mayor Kraus said. “Absolutely not.
“For me moving forward, I would hope that there would be a tremendous amount of discussion, particularly issues surrounding the lake and drainage and the dam, wetlands, and whether or not the property is even buildable,” the mayor continued. “That is one of my major concerns. There are other concerns too but the ecological and environmental issues surrounding the property would be my main concern.
“I would like to hear from state agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers,” the mayor added. “I think the public wants to know how much of the property is buildable. There needs to be some expertise involved in those discussions.”
Mr. Melamed said that based on feedback from the community, the plan has been modified “as happens all the time with development plans.
“A lot of that is to respond to things that the Harrises have heard from the community,” Mr. Melamed added.
Talk of whether or not it is a true winery is also something Mr. Melamed addressed. Mr. Harris had indicated the wine would be coming from vineyards in Israel and Mr. Melamed said grapes will in fact be grown on the site in Solon. They are not mutually exclusive, Mr. Melamed said.
“The hope is to develop grapes that will grow on the property and ultimately have them produce wine, but that takes several years to have the vineyards to be in a position to produce grapes that can be harvested for wine,” he said. “But like with many wineries, the focus here will be on a wide variety of wines and a specific focus on Israeli wines for residents to be able to take part in.
“This is not an unusual concept,” he said, noting the plans for Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant across from the Pinecrest development in Orange Village.
“That has no vineyards whatsoever,” he said.