Gates Mills Land Conservancy President Rob Galloway said that he was happy to see Village Council’s unanimous votes in favor of the conservancy at the Aug. 10 council meeting but anticipated a significantly higher revenue split for the levy.

The 1-mill, five-year conservation levy has been in place since 1991 and has been renewed five times. The levy brings $200,000 per year to the village. For the last 25 years, the village had an agreement to give 95 percent of the levy revenue to the conservancy and keep 5 percent for its own conservation projects.

Earlier this month, council voted to place the renewal on the Nov. 2 ballot. They also approved an agreement in which the village and conservancy would each receive 50 percent of the levy funds, instead of the original 95/5 split. Mr. Galloway said that he was glad to see council’s support, but the conservancy wanted to keep 95 percent of the levy revenue.

“We were told we would not get anything even though we wanted 95/5. So, we had to justify what we thought we could get, which was 50 percent,” he said last week. “We were told that there were people on council who weren’t going to approve anything.”

Mr. Galloway declined to disclose which elected officials told the conservancy that they may not receive 95 percent of the revenue funds. He, however, said that Councilwoman Nancy Sogg did not want to renew the levy and Councilman Chip AuWerter was “negative” about the renewal. Ms. Sogg did not have further comments on the levy following the vote, but she and Mr. AuWerter voted in favor of placing the renewal on the ballot and the 50/50 revenue split.

“This is a reasonable agreement that both parties found acceptable,” Mr. AuWerter said on Aug. 13. “That’s true of all negotiations. You listen to each other. They listened and we responded to them. We feel like this has been a great collaboration. Some residents try to stir it up, but we had full support from the conservancy board.”

All 15 conservancy board members supported the 50/50 revenue sharing agreement. Earlier this summer, there was debate on whether the conservancy is an independent organization or a “vehicle” of council. Mr. AuWerter and Ms. Sogg said at the June meeting that the conservancy is controlled by Council. In July, Mr. AuWerter said that the former agreement had inaccurate information. He said that the conservancy is an independent organization. The only relationship between the two is that the mayor can appoint one third of the trustees for the conservancy.

Mr. AuWerter said that there were comments from several “prominent” residents who said that village officials are impacting the tax base in Gates Mills by reducing the number of properties that can be developed. Mr. Galloway said that many of the properties owned by the land conservancy cannot be developed anyways for a variety of reasons, such as an irregular shape or the natural terrain.

“The [parcels] we do own weren’t really developable anyways,” he said. “That whole argument was a diversion because it really isn’t true.”

Former Mayor Shawn Riley was one of the residents opposed to the 95/5 revenue split. Some residents indicated that they would mount a vigorous campaign encouraging residents to vote against the levy.

“They said they would have a concerted campaign,” Mr. AuWerter said. “That could sway a lot of voters.”

Mr. AuWerter said that the 50/50 split was more agreeable to the residents who were “violently opposed” to the 95/5 split. He said that the levy may not have passed at a 95/5 split. Mr. Galloway said that the levy would not pass if the conservancy received less than 50 percent of the revenue. The conservancy would rather be collaborative than adversarial with village officials, he said.

“That’s how the land conservancy is able to support the agreement when they would rather have 95 [percent]. At least we know all 100 percent will be used for conservation,” Mr. Galloway said, noting that both the conservancy and village must use the funds for conservation in Gates Mills. “The village wanted to control the other half. In the end, the money is going to the right place. It became more of who is going to control the spending of it.”

Mr. AuWerter said that the new revenue sharing agreement is beneficial to the village because it can help address the looming deficit, which will be more than $600,000 next year. The levy is for conservation and preservation, Mr. AuWerter said, so the funds could be used for eroding stream banks and culverts that negatively impact the village’s water runoff.

“Those have been major expenditures for us over the years. We anticipate there will be more of that,” he said. “But we could also end up with $500,000 just sitting in the conservation account. We’re not getting up every morning trying to figure out how to spend it.”

Councilman Craig Steinbrink said that the conservancy’s trustees must do what is best for their organization, noting that they did not take this decision lightly. He said that the conservancy board would not have voted in favor of the 50/50 split if it did not meet their needs.

While collecting signatures to retain his seat on council, Mr. Steinbrink said he spoke to many residents on both sides of this issue. Some residents say enough land has been preserved while others say there is more work to do. He expects the levy to pass this fall.

“You can’t be for conservation and preservation and protecting the ambiance of the village and be against the levy renewal,” Mr. Steinbrink said.

Since the discussions began about the levy renewal, the conservancy has garnered more supporters, Mr. Galloway said. Conservancy members have met with residents who would like to volunteer and support their organization. Their annual meeting is Oct. 12, which is open to all 140 members of the conservancy. On Sept. 8 from 6-7:30 p.m., the conservancy is hosting a town hall to discuss the levy in the basement of the Gates Mills Community House, 1460 Chagrin River Road.

Several residents made comments at past meetings about a lack of transparency during this process. Mr. Galloway said that the conservancy had discussions with the council members about the levy prior to the May council meeting when the conservancy gave a presentation about the levy. Councilwoman Ann Whitney said that a governing body cannot open every discussion to residents because it is not an efficient way to get things done.

“It’s not an effort on anyone’s part to not inform someone,” she said. “It’s just a matter of getting business done.”

Julie Hullett has been a reporter for the Chagrin Valley Times since August of 2018 and covers Gates Mills, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills, Orange, Pepper Pike and Woodmere. She graduated from John Carroll University with a journalism degree in 2018.

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