Opponents of proposed industrial park clash with mayor, council

Kelly J. Kaczala

        Opponents of a possible industrial park development on 400 acres in East Oregon packed Oregon City Council chambers on Monday to express their concerns that such a proposal could impact nearby wetlands and an already compromised Lake Erie.
        Mayor Mike Seferian said a new electric vehicle battery plant would go in the park.
        Tensions were high throughout the three-hour meeting, with some in the audience accusing the administration and members of council of not being truthful about the project, which they said would negatively affect eagles nests and fragile wetlands.
        Seferian and City Administrator Mike Beazley said the city needs to bring in big business to expand its tax base and maintain city services.
        “Many residents believe property taxes provide funds to run the city,” said Seferian. “The city of Oregon gets approximately 4 percent of your property tax. The rest goes to the schools and the county. A normal house in the city brings in $4,000 per year in property taxes. That means $160 comes to the City of Oregon. That is not enough to pay for your garbage pickup. So, our lifeline is the payroll income tax from employees who work in the city.”
        Seferian said people have asked why that area was picked for the project.
        “These different businesses we’re looking to locate somewhere. They came to us through the governor’s office, through the Regional Growth Partnership in Lucas County, and from our Oregon Economic Development Foundation. Our biggest income is through our industrial area. Our refineries are some of the biggest suppliers of our revenue. Refineries are doing business a little different than they have in the past: They’re struggling.  The refineries suffered a lot of changes that cost them a lot of money. We’re of the understanding that the refineries will not show profit for another five years. There’s two things we can do about it: cut city services, or try to find new revenues,” he said..
More revenue
        A big business would replace the amount of tax revenue the city stands to lose from the refineries, he said, up to $4 million.
        “There are big proposed businesses looking, and Ohio is interested in them locating to Ohio. Most of these projects are looking for two to three hundred acres plus, with the supply of natural gas, water and sanitary sewer, electrical power, some rail, that would meet their demands. This was the only site in the City of Oregon that was even a possibility. It’s also been said we were out to try to take people’s property or strong arm them. Not true at all. When we looked at this parcel, we were told if there was any chance of landing a business, we would have to secure that property.  We’re still looking at opportunities to keep our city services alive, and to keep taxes down and to help schools. So I went out and spoke to some people. It was brought out that I told people to `keep this hush hush.’ That also is not true. I said something close to that. I said I had to talk to eight people, and would like the opportunity to talk to them before they heard it from someone else. I knew this was not something I could keep a secret. I know as much about zoning as anyone in here. I know that any of the parcels have to have zoning changes. It absolutely has to go through the planning commission, adjoining properties have to be notified, and we have to have a public hearing. After that, no less than 30 days, no greater than 45 days, when it comes before city council for another public hearing. It is impossible to keep it under wraps. All I wanted was the courtesy to talk to these people,” said Seferian.
        “If we stay stagnant here, our city will not have the same services it does. I hope we find a huge business that would come fill our industrial area and solve all our money issues. We’ll keep trying. If this gets voted down, we will never stop trying to do that,” he said.
        “We work hard every day to make sure our services are kept up, we work hard that we don’t have to put additional taxes on the ballot,” he added..
        Seferian said the city tries to help the refineries, which are expected to continue to struggle into the future..
        “We try to help them survive every way we can. Maybe everything will go great. They tell us they believe in 10 years, 30-35 percent of the cars in the world will be electric. Their need to produce gas will go down at that ratio. When it goes down, the workforce will go down. We hope we can keep both refineries open. We can’t wait around. We don’t have a money tree here. It’s just one possibility,” he said of the industrial park. “It has a lot of steps to go through. We wouldn’t force it down anyone’s throat.”
        Beazley also tried to ease people’s fears that their property could be taken by eminent domain.
        “The city, under Ohio law, cannot do eminent domain – ever - for property development.  It’s not something that’s possible. We have never done it. If Oregon property owners want to discuss it and look at possibilities, that is the only way that something could happen. There’s no better way to be more transparent than to go out and personally knock on the door and talk to property owners. That’s what the mayor did,” said Beazley. “We had two property owners tell us they were not interested. We had wondered about the possibility of a broader site than this. Property owners said they weren’t interested in continuing with the discussion, We took those out of consideration.”
         Steve Salander, of Eastvale Avenue, Oregon, said there was no transparency on the issue.
        “My main purpose being here as a citizen of Oregon is the concern over the wetlands and our farmers losing their land. My purpose is to provide support and being able to stand with them as well. The one word I keep hearing that is the basis of everything right now is transparency. That’s been a real issue that I’ve personally seen over the six years I’ve lived here. There are continued issues of transparency. If there’s transparency, people don’t have to speculate and try to guess what it is. Just be honest and open with your citizens. You work for us. Not the other way around,” Salander said to a burst of applause from the audience.
        Salander called Seferian’s comments about the risk of losing city services or the possibility of raising taxes if the city doesn’t do more to bring in big business “fear mongering.”
        “I understand some of that can happen, but why does it always have to be a threat?” asked Salander.
        “It’s not a threat,” said Seferian.
        “It comes across that way,” said Salander.
        “Then I’m sorry,” said Seferian. “But it could be a reality.”
        Salander also questioned Seferian’s concerns about maintaining city services.
        “If you were this concerned about city services, what happened with dispatch? What happened during the consolidation?”Where were you?”
        “I was right here,” said Seferian.
        “And you were very quiet,” said Solander. “So that’s how you feel about city services.”
        Dr. Susan Orosz, an avian veterinarian who lives on Brown Road, called the development of an industrial park at that location “a canary in a coal mine.”
        “These people are very concerned about transparency and the wetlands,” said Orosz, one of the top 10 avian veterinarians in the country.
        “I am very disappointed you are so very worried about big industry when there are other ways of making money,” she said. “I’m very concerned, as an avian vet, with all this industry. You are going to lose something that is very fragile and very important. This area drains to the area by Maumee Bay State Park. There’s a wonderful swale that goes out there. So we have all these environmental issues to be concerned about. We have a huge contingent of people that come here for birding. We’re going to lose all of this. I think people don’t want to live in a big industrial park. These people have come here to live because they like the wetlands, the farming area. And I do, too. That’s why my family farm is still here.  If you want to buy the properties, then make them into a park,” she said to a burst of applause.
        Beth Ackerman, a property owner who turned down Seferian’s request to buy her land, said it has caused her a lot of duress.
        “You stood in my driveway,” she said to Seferian, “and you offered me $20,000 per acre to start. You said not to speak about it to anyone.” She said she knew of “an acquaintance” of the city who was offered $40,000 per acre.
        Seferian said he was unaware the city offered anyone $40,000 per acre. “If that was the case…then everyone else on the option had a `me-too’ clause. But we didn’t do it. We couldn’t afford to do it.”
        Ackerman said there were members of council who told other property owners that Ackerman “was in,” meaning she had agreed to sell her land to the city for the industrial park. ” Some of our council people were lying to other people saying we were in. So there was that cat and mouse game. So people were calling me constantly saying they heard we were in. But we were not.”
        Amy Masell, of Navarre Avenue, said she grew up in the area. “Where I live is awesome. I grew up there, my mom grew up there. I watched my family work hard. You are looking at whole community of people that work hard. We love this location,” said Masell, a sixth grade teacher.
        Anna Bushman, of N. Curtice Road, said she lives in Jerusalem Township “because I enjoy the wilderness of it.”
        “I enjoy my land, looking out from my porch drinking my iced tea and watching the eagles fly over my house,” she said.
        Ackerman said the city underestimated the bond that landowners in that area have with each other, and the commitment they have to conserve the environment.
        “We are part of a community. Most of the people you see who have property there, they don’t live there. They don’t even live around there. The people you see who have opted out are members of this community that care about the image we present to the world,” she said.


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