Oakwood Rezoning: Document Submitted to Wrong Person
More details about why South Euclid City Council rejected the petition that would have allowed voters to make a decision about Oakwood rezoning
Citizens for Oakwood didn’t know it had handed the document that could help stop Oakwood rezoning to the wrong person.
South Euclid Law Director Michael Lograsso didn’t know that Citizens for Oakwood handed the document to the wrong person.
In fact, not even the man who took it — Clerk of Council Keith Benjamin — realized he was the wrong person.
But the mistake could prevent voters from deciding whether the former Oakwood Country Club, which falls in both South Euclid and Cleveland Heights, should be rezoned for development.
Citizens for Oakwood, an organization advocating that Oakwood be converted to a park, collected more than 500 signatures on a petition (the minimum requirement is 251) to get a referendum on the November ballot and fight South Euclid City Council’s decision to rezone the land for development. Voters could decide what happens to the property, and the organization believes they’d oppose it.
First Interstate Properties, the company behind Legacy Village and Steelyard Commons, bought the land in South Euclid in December, and on June 27, City Council voted to rezone it from residential to commercial so that the developer could build a mix of retail and residential properties as well as parkland.
Fran Mentch, president of the Severance Neighborhood Organization, the nonprofit that created the group Citizens for Oakwood, said that the organization submitted the document in question — a certified copy of the ordinance — to Benjamin.
Everything else, according to the South Euclid City Charter, was supposed to be handed to him. The clerk of council is also the person responsible for submitting the paperwork to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
But the charter didn’t clarify who should receive that certified copy of the ordinance, a pre-petition document, said law director Lograsso, and if city law does not spell out those details, cities are supposed to refer to state law. Under the Ohio Revised Code 731.32, that document should have gone to the city auditor, not the clerk.
To further complicate matters, the city doesn’t have an auditor, so the document, in the end, should have been handed to the city’s finance director, he said.
But the city didn’t catch that mistake, and council was ready to approve a measure to allow Benjamin to certify the petitions and send them to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
On Friday, just a few days before the special meeting where City Council would announce its decision, First Interstate Properties sent Benjamin a letter, outlining three reasons it believed the petition was not sufficient.
Lograsso reviewed it over the weekend and decided Monday afternoon, hours before the meeting, that First Interstate was right about that one thing.
“From a personal point of view, I would have preferred that the (petitions) went to the Board of Elections, and let voters decide and that it not fall into my lap,” he said. “I looked at the law, and it’s very clear on this issue. Once I became aware of this legal issue I couldn’t ignore it.”
As a result of this finding, he recommended that South Euclid City Council reject the petition that would have put a referendum on the November ballot. Members voted down a resolution that would have authorized Benjamin to certify the petition to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
He said that the organization can appeal the decision in court, and that it’s possible the issue will still appear on the ballot.
Mentch said she is pursuing this option now.
“Why won't the City of South Euclid let its residents vote on this important issue? They said everybody wanted it. What are they afraid of?" she said.
Lograsso said the law is extremely complicated, but it’s the petitioners' responsibility to get the procedures right, not the city.
“How can I ignore the law? I’d be compromising my ethics ... You have to strictly comply with the procedures set out in the law, and they were deemed insufficient,” he said. “This whole area of the law, it’s a minefield. It’s very easy for a lawyer, let alone a layperson, to hit a mine.”
First Interstate Properties President Mitchell Schneider said at the June meeting that he believed people in the community would support development at Oakwood.
About 60 acres of Oakwood sits in South Euclid, and the remaining 92 acres is in Cleveland Heights. First Interstate plans to buy the land in Cleveland Heights by September, said Schneider.
Cleveland Heights Mayor Ed Kelley said he has not yet received plans from the developer.