This could have been a classic case of what goes around comes around. But it wasn’t.
Well, it went around 29 years ago, when long-held plans were scuttled by demagoguery. And it could have come around, if other plans hadn’t been sidetracked eight years ago.
I’m talking about the 151.5-acre Upper Chagrin Preserve, most of which lies in Russell Township, with a northern sector jutting into Chester Township. This pristine land – well, sort of – is under the auspices of Russell Township trustees.
It is separate and distinct from the 422 acres in seven parks of the Russell Township Park District, which now mostly are being leased to the Geauga Park District. None of this should be confused with the recently created Russell Township Citizens Park District, which has no money, at least not yet. OK, maybe it is confusing.
What’s less confusing, however, is that antipathy between certain segments of the Russell population and the Geauga Park District predates by more than two decades the current widespread park-related antipathy toward Geauga County Probate Judge Timothy J. Grendell. Under Ohio law, the probate judge is responsible for appointing the separate three-member boards that oversee the Geauga County and Russell Township park districts.
A grassroots organization known as Protect Geauga Parks has been on Judge Grendell’s case for going on six years over what its members consider grave transgressions against the park district’s commitment to “preservation, conservation and protection.” His advocacy of such activities as hunting, snowmobiling and all-terrain vehicles in the parks gave rise to the ongoing conflict. It carried over to the recent agreement to lease Russell parklands to the Geauga Park District, even though such activities are expressly forbidden in that lease.
Surreptitiously, such activities undermined plans by the national Nature Conservancy to deed the Upper Chagrin Preserve to the Geauga Park District in 1989, even though that intent had been known for at least a decade.
Neighbors of the preserve were up in arms with absurd claims that the park district would bring thousands of outsiders to their doorstep with extreme noise, vandalism and trespassing. The Nature Conservancy was bullied into reneging on its plans and deeding the preserve to township trustees instead.
By 2010, trustees were wringing their hands over ongoing problems. The township’s benign neglect had allowed the supposedly passive parkland to be overrun by ATVs and other unauthorized uses, resulting in a labyrinth of trails, vandalism and dumping. Outsiders were not causing those damages, because adjacent property owners had prevailed upon trustees to essentially privatize the land for their personal misuse.
There was discussion in 2010 about turning the Upper Chagrin Preserve over to the Russell Township Park District, although it too was having trouble with unauthorized ATV trails in its adjacent preserve. But that did not happen.
If it had, the Upper Chagrin Preserve very well now could be part of the lease to the Geauga Park District, which, as Russell Township park commission chairman Scott Wayt accurately pointed out, can provide programs and security that the Russell parks have never had.
Fortunately, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which holds a conservation easement on the Upper Chagrin Preserve, found no major issues in its 2018 stewardship visit. “There are signs that some of the trails are still being used periodically by ATVs and possibly other motorized vehicles but the impacts at the time of my visit were fairly minimal,” according to Pete McDonald, director of land stewardship.
He did find a hunting-camp encroachment, a potential shooting target and trash accumulation at different locations but reported cooperation by responsible neighbors in cleaning them up.
Now, that’s some real park protection.