OLMSTED FALLS

Some residents are concerned about the rampant residential development occurring in Olmsted Falls and the tax breaks the city offers developers.

Two proposed subdivisions totaling about 150 homes have stirred up residents, city leaders and led to at least one lawsuit.

Over the last few months, residents have packed City Council and Planning Commission meetings over issues related to at least two residential developments.

At the Sept. 14 meeting, council members voted 5-2 against putting a six-month moratorium on any commercial or residential development in the city. If adopted, the moratorium would have blocked developers from even submitting proposals.

“Many cities might consider a moratorium on a very specific development or type of development,” such as fast food restaurants, said Mayor James Graven. “But I’ve never seen a city put a six-month moratorium on all new development. The legislation was just very ill-conceived.”

Graven, who is a lawyer, said that if it would have been adopted, multiple parties with developments in the pipeline would have sued the city.

While the city is always looking for commercial development, no such development is proposed, Graven said.

Council at-large member Jennifer Jansen and Council Pro-Tempore Lori Jones proposed the moratorium. Jones did not respond to a request for comment. Jansen is running against Graven in the Nov. 2 election.

In an email, Jansen said the moratorium will not be reintroduced.

“Until those on council who voted against it are swayed by the people, I fear if reintroduced it would just be voted down again,” Jansen said.

The moratorium was introduced in response to residents’ concerns.

Jones drew the ire of Law Director Andy Bemer during the Sept. 14 meeting. Jones took offense to some of Bemer’s comments, including his questioning of city officials' knowledge of city laws.

Bemer, who is also law director in Rocky River, told Jones the offense was intentional. He later told West Life he made the comment “in the heat of the moment,” after Jones interrupted him several times as he spoke against the moratorium.

“I just got frustrated,” he said.

The moratorium would have immediately impacted the Western Reserve Estates East project, a proposed 50-home subdivision on the east side of Columbia Road near Main Street being built by WRE Development Ltd., and Pulte Homes, officials said. A model home has already been built.

Former city Councilman Lee Fenrich said he opposed the moratorium.

“Our codes are reasonably well-written,” Fenrich said. “But that certainly does not mean there is no room for improvement.”

He said the proposed moratorium served to bring certain issues to light.

Bemer said the proposed Western Reserve East subdivision would not have gone forward without the 50%, 10-year real estate tax abatement granted developers.

The tax abatement and a citywide community reinvestment area are both under attack by some residents. Olmsted Falls offers abatements in the Community Reinvestment Area, which council created in 2019, Bemer said.

The city gives tax breaks on new construction or remodeling in the Community Reinvestment Area as a way to promote development in the community and growth.

“The abatement allows owners to abate 50% of the property taxes resulting from qualified improvements to their properties for 10 years after improvements are completed,” according to the city’s website. “Property owners will not be required to pay property taxes on 50% of the increase in value that resulted from renovation or new construction on the property for a period of 10 years.”

The cost of the abatement to the city and the Olmsted Falls City School District won't be known until new homes are sold and final purchase prices are known, said city Finance Director Cory Swaisgood.

"I believe abatement is good for Olmsted Falls. Most of the people against it say ‘I didn’t get it so why should some newcomer get it?’” said City Council President Paul Stibich. “Others say the newcomers would move here even without the abatement. Still others say it will put additional tax burdens on everyone else. All are untrue."

The recent census shows that Olmsted Falls is dropping in population, Stibich added.

“And the current population is aging,” he continued. “More retirees means less income tax revenue, the largest source of revenues for the city. Our city needs to grow as our neighboring communities are growing.”

The city’s population fell from just over 9,000 in 2010 to 8,742 in 2020, a loss of approximately 3%. But as the population drops, tax revenues fall too, but the cost of city government keeps increasing, Bemer told council.

“The math does not add up unless you start adding new residents,” he added.

Or raise taxes, which many cities must do to keep the quality of services at the level residents have come to expect.

Both Bermer and Graven defended the abatement given Pulte and WRE Development.

Main Street residents Matthew Melis and Evanne Juratovac filed a lawsuit against the city and WRE Development on July 15.

Neither Melis nor Juratovac or their attorney, Erik Walter of Painesville, responded to requests for comment. The suit alleges a lack of enforcement and compliance with city tree ordinances, according to the complaint filed with the Cuyahoga County Court Of Common Pleas. The suit seeks in excess of $25,000 in both punitive and compensatory damages.

No trial date is set for the lawsuit. City officials declined to comment on the lawsuit as it is pending litigation.

Fenrich is an outspoken critic of another residential plan proposed by Suhail Development of Chagrin Falls. Western Reserve West could consist of nearly 100 homes off Columbia, half a mile south of Bagley Road, according to Fenrich.

Fenrich blasted the potential development over the density of the homes as well as arguing the plans violate city tree ordinances. He and a group of residents have hired Walter so he can try to find information on the project. The group is not connected with the lawsuit already filed.

“We are not ready to sue the city yet,” Fenrich said.

Suhail Company CEO and President Sam Suhail said his plans are preliminary, calling the development a work in progress. He presented preliminary plans to the planning commission over the summer.

“It was 10 pounds of crap stuffed into a 5-pound bag,” resident Bill Synk said in an interview. Synk is a Fenrich ally and criticized the city for not having enough building inspectors and other officials to handle the influx of development.

“There is nobody there to do inspections or anything like that,” Synk said. “We don’t have the people to handle one development let alone potentially three.”

“(Suhail) certainly has the right to develop his property,” Fenrich said. “I’m not against development, but it has to be done correctly.”

Planning Commission member Gary Thompson said the commission asked Suhail to work on several issues, including density and potential plans to cut into the required riparian setback along a branch of the Rocky River.

Suhail said he is not sure when he will return to the city with revised plans.

“We are in no hurry,” he said.

Contact this reporter at tcorrigan@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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