Legal battle rages over Oakwood greenspace

Nestled between Cleveland Heights and South Euclid, the former Oakwood golf course is a tranquil place. Several species of rare birds flit through its trees. One of the few aboveground portions of Nine Mile Creek bubbles gently through it. Oakwood’s classification is even gentle: it’s designated as a "passive recreation park," meaning only hiking and horseback riding are allowed on its grounds.

But Oakwood’s peaceful nature belies the fiery debate that has raged over its future. For the last several months, a real estate development company (First Interstate Properties) has been trying to construct a shopping center on the land, while a group of concerned residents from South Euclid, Cleveland Heights, University Heights and Lyndhurst (Citizens for Oakwood) have done everything it can to prevent this from happening.

The conflict began in January, when First Interstate purchased the South Euclid portion of the Oakwood property. In April, the company received unanimous approval from both the South Euclid Planning Commission and the South Euclid City Council to rezone the portion of Oakwood within the city limits. This irked many citizens in the area; they felt betrayed. Steve Pressman, a South Euclid resident and a Citizens for Oakwood stalwart, summed up the sentiment at a recent meeting: "We need a city council that’s beholden to its residents, not these guys blowing into town."

The concerns of Citizens for Oakwood are two-fold. First, they see the park as a valuable natural resource. According to Carla Rautenberg, facilitator of the Citizens for Oakwood meetings, "Oakwood has never been built on," with the exception of the club house that served the members. As a result, it is home to a unique ecosystem, which many feel is worth preserving.

The local economy, however, is even more of a concern for the group. Big box stores—the Oakwood shopping center would contain two—hurt property values, discourage potential homeowners, and create traffic problems. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that the development would boost local incomes or reduce unemployment. Earlier in the year, First Interstate publicly refused to agree to hire South Euclid residents first at Oakwood or to pay employees a living wage, set at $8.88 an hour. Citizens for Oakwood were bitterly disappointed. "What would be more of a statement of sustainability than paying a living wage?" asked representative Fran Mentch.

Furthermore, with areas such as Cedar-Center South, University Square, and Mayfield-Green undeveloped or operating far below capacity, the group sees the planned Oakwood shopping center as an unnecessary use of land. Rautenberg explained, "Citizens for Oakwood is not against development; we support development in the proper place." As Pressman put it, "an undeveloped piece of land—it’s got infinite value."

In response to the rezoning of the South Euclid portion of the property, Citizens for Oakwood canvassed the area and gathered the 500 signatures necessary to put a measure on South Euclid’s ballot in November. The group’s bid for a referendum was dismissed by the South Euclid City Council, however, because the city auditor did not receive a copy of the petition from the group before it gathered signatures, per Ohio State Law.

The most recent development in the issue involves a request by Citizens for Oakwood to the Ohio Supreme Court to get an Oakwood referendum on the November ballot. The lawyers for Citizens for Oakwood face an uphill battle, however. In February, First Interstate refiled the rezoning request as an emergency, which, in most Ohio cities, means that citizens cannot bring a referendum against it. Though not the case in South Euclid, whose charter states that emergency rezonings do not prevent referenda, First Interstate’s lawyers are trying to use the models of other cities as precedent. Citizens of Oakwood are furious. "Trying to prevent the people of South Euclid from voting on this is against the basic tenets of our government," said Mentch.

The Supreme Court is expected to reach a decision on the future of the Oakwood property in early September. Mentch, for one, remains optimistic. "In most communities," she said, "[the struggle for Oakwood] would’ve been over before it started."

James Helmsworth

James Helmsworth is a student at Oberlin College and a Heights Observer intern.

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Volume 4, Issue 9, Posted 12:32 AM, 08.29.2011