Earth Day: Remember nature in the debate over Millikin and other school buildings

This Earth Day, April 22, remember that you can make a difference. The public attitude favoring a balance with nature, firmly and persistently expressed to our elected officials, can and has changed the world for the better.

The first Earth Day observances were held on April 22, 1970. I was in high school then, in another part of town. Our schoolbooks said the sky was blue, but when we looked toward Cleveland what we saw was an angry yellow-brown haze. I can still feel how my eyes would sting and my lungs would burn on the worst summer days.

They say your most powerful memories are linked to your sense of smell, and my childhood memories are linked to the smell of sulfur dioxide. It was still legal to dump industrial waste and sewage onto the ground or into the nearest stream. Some days the creeks and ponds were covered with foam just like a sink full of sudsy dishes. When we took a field trip on the Goodtime, a tour of the Cuyahoga River, the river was bright orange. The buildings downtown were so covered in soot that people thought they were made of black stones. If you were alive then, your lungs may still contain some of that same black soot.

That summer, I went with friends to walk and swim on the beautiful beaches at Mentor Headlands, but when we got there the beaches were covered with thousands of dead fish, victims of oxygen deprivation. People lived much shorter, less healthy lives, and if you reached 100, you got your picture in the local newspaper. That was our world with life out of balance, when nature was ignored, when nature lovers were scorned.

More than 40 years later, things have changed. Now when I walk or drive along the lakefront, I see people kayaking and boating, and participating in rowing races near the mouth of the Cuyahoga. People routinely catch fish in the Rocky River and along the lakeshore. The public demanded the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and rigorous enforcement. But most importantly, the public attitude toward the environment changed. Over a period of years, I watched as the downtown buildings were cleaned to reveal stones in white, and red, and other colors. Furthermore, people live longer, healthier, and more active lives. Now you have to reach the age of 115 to get noticed by the newspapers. So, we can make a difference. With a change in attitude, we can live in balance with nature, and we are all better off for it.

It is troubling then that we see that nature is completely overlooked in many recent discussions of how public land will be used right here in Cleveland Heights. The public schools are one of our biggest landowners. What will be done with the land and buildings in your neighborhood once they have closed the schools?

Recently, the school board announced that it would seek a new appraisal of the Millikin School property, which includes Severance Woods, a wooded buffer protecting the local residential neighborhoods from the noise and traffic of the mall. This public land is the last remaining natural area in this part of the city. While much is said about the school building and grounds, the value of Severance Woods is rarely considered.

This is not a barren wasteland in need of development. As it stand today, the woods provide millions of dollars in value just from air quality and other benefits—the reduction of noise pollution, and making the neighborhood a more attractive place to live in and own property. Destroying the woods for any other use would cost us these benefits and must be considered when placing the appraisal in its proper context. Keep in mind that this property is already publicly owned.

Appraisals have the unfortunate tendency to treat a natural area as though it were a simply an empty space on the map, worthless unless it is covered with buildings and pavements. The values quoted in the previous appraisal assumed that the property would be developed, meaning that the wooded buffer would be completely destroyed, as though it had no real value as it is.

Recently, the idea of turning Millikin School into a call center was revealed, and fortunately defeated by public outcry. [Such a] proposal would result in heavy traffic on our quiet street, going to and from a building far from public transit. When I spoke with an elected official about this, I was told that they were simply going to make a connection from Severance Circle, destroying the densest part of Severance Woods to create yet another road. City Council has assured me that the call center idea is dead. What troubles me is that the idea of destroying the woods was even considered at all, at any level of government.

How can we put a price on nature? Justifying trees and wetlands is a lot like using an economic analysis to justify the clean air and water necessary for life itself. Some of you may remember needing to do just that around the time of the first Earth Day. It saddens me to think we need to do that again. We must insist that these real values be considered, as well as any other development ideas the appraisers may suggest.

A few points to consider (from “Over a 50-year lifetime, a tree generates $31,250 worth of oxygen, provides $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycles $37,500 worth of water, and controls $31,250 worth of soil erosion.”

That adds up to about $162,000 over 50 years, or $3,240 per year. If we estimate that Severance Woods has about 1,000 mature trees, that figure is about $3,240,000 per year. If the woods are destroyed, this is one tangible loss that can never be made up.

“One tree that shades your home in the city will also save fossil fuel, cutting CO2 buildup as much as 15 forest trees.”

“A single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 48 lbs. per year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two human beings.”

Trees slow down water runoff. Consider that the North East Ohio Regional Sewer District has been spending millions on new sewers just to control runoff, that sewer bills are soaring to pay for it, and that surcharges are being imposed on homes and other property with excessive impermeable surfaces. Why then would anyone want to pave over land that reduces runoff and pollution to build something that would aggravate the problem?

Trees filter pollution from water. Consider that we are paying to expand sewers and sewage treatment plants for water heading to Lake Erie, and then paying again to treat the water coming from Lake Erie to our homes. What sense does it make to remove a natural area that helps keep this water clean?

Trees help us save energy. They reduce air-conditioning costs by cooling and shading surface air. They reduce heating costs by sheltering homes from wind. The U. S. Forest Service estimates the annual effect of well-positioned trees at savings of about 20–25 percent when compared to buildings in a wide-open area.

The value of property with trees increase by 5–15 percent when compared to property without trees. Another way to think about this is that by destroying the woods, the value of adjacent homes decreases by thousands of dollars.

A study by the U. S. Department of Energy reports that trees reduce noise pollution by acting as a buffer and absorbing up to 50 percent of urban noise.

It can be difficult to quantify nature, and any analysis is subject to dispute. However, an appraisal that suggests the land can be used in ways that the community clearly opposes is deeply flawed, no matter how precise the numbers may look on paper. Let us not pretend that other types of use are desirable or acceptable to the community. Let us not pretend that the development would actually succeed and provide the speculative values arbitrarily assigned by the appraisers.

There is no shortage of single-family houses in Cleveland Heights. Empty office and retail spaces have been converted into unfilled residential developments. Severance Circle already has a townhouse development (where office buildings once stood), and which has remained unfinished for several years, even with generous tax abatements. Another office building was converted to residential use, also unfilled. Just across Mayfield Road stands another incomplete townhouse development, with yet another on Euclid Heights Boulevard.

We have plenty of commercial districts, already privately held, so there is no need to convert more public land to compete with the private sector for that purpose. In short, there is no justification for destroying a small piece of nature for yet another development. The threat that the woods could be destroyed and replaced by a nuisance already affects people’s attitudes about the value of investing near Severance Circle. The value to the community of resolving these doubts must be considered in any appraisal of this public asset.

The best possible use of Severance Woods is for the land to remain wooded. We already have the trees and the benefits, so why throw it all away? Once again, I urge our school board and our city council to designate this small piece of land as a nature preserve for the good of ourselves, our children, and our world. This should be part of any deal to sell the school.

We have proven that we can make a better world. All we have to do is think about our actions. This Earth Day let us show the world we care. Let us preserve this small, fragile piece of nature.

MIchael Morse

Michael Morse is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights.

Read More on Letters To The Editor
Volume 5, Issue 5, Posted 10:37 AM, 04.17.2012