Columbus — An Ohio DNR proposal to swap land that had come into the department’s hands to mitigate wetlands destruction has come under fire from two environmental groups.
Both the Ohio Environmental Council and the Sierra Club Central Ohio Group claim that the DNR has no right to trade to a private developer the 17.8 acres known as Sawmill State Wildlife Education Center, which had been deeded to the state in 1996 after a developer filled in wetlands to build a shopping center.
The property, which has about seven acres of wetlands, is surrounded by development, and has gotten little use, said DNR spokesman Carlo LoParo.
In exchange for the property, the DNR would receive $150,000 and 43 acres located on the Olentangy River.
“We would exchange a property that has very limited public access,” said LoParo, adding that the Sawmill site “doesn’t suit the mission of the Division of Wildlife or our state parks system.”
LoParo called the environmental groups’ assertion of wrongdoing “disingenuous.”
He said there is nothing in the deed preventing the state from trading the land.
Kristen Kubitza, the Ohio Environmental Council’s water policy director, pointed to a 1994 letter from James Morris, DNR’s land management chief at the time. Morris praised the property and stated it “will be managed in perpetuity for preservation purposes.”
Asked about that letter, LoParo said, “The fact of the matter is we based our decisions on covenants and deed restrictions and what’s in the best interest of sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts in Ohio,” said LoParo.
The sides have arrived at different interpretations of the deed, which reads, the land came with “the condition that the real property be used and occupied for public purposes.”
LoParo emphasized that simply trading the property would not change its wetland status, as the 43 acres the developer would be exchanging would not serve as mitigation.
“The property would maintain all of its environmental protections after the exchange,” LoParo said. “The developer would have to seek a mitigation permit from the Ohio EPA.”
Ohio EPA spokesman Chris Abbruzzese said the developer, James D. Schrimm III, who did not return calls seeking comment before press time, has not submitted an application.
Developers seeking to disturb or fill wetlands have to apply for permits from the Ohio EPA, which requires them to create wetlands elsewhere to mitigate the damage.
It was the development and wetland disturbance by The Limited Inc., which built the nearby shopping center, that necessitated the donation of the Sawmill property in the first place.
In January, Tom Harcarik, Ohio EPA’s isolated wetlands permitting supervisor, was critical of the deal in an internal memo, calling the site “an ecologically significant urban wetland,” and emphasizing “in perpetuity must mean in perpetuity.”
But Abbruzzese said Ohio EPA is not opposed the deal, though it has no oversight of DNR’s pending deal.
“(Harcarik) injected his opinions into the memo,” Abbruzzese said. “Those opinions don’t reflect the opinion of the agency. … It seems like a good deal for (DNR).”
But Kubitza was also critical of the value the state would be getting back in return for the deal.
Where LoParo said it makes every bit of sense to trade an orphaned piece of property in the middle of urban development for a larger property on the banks of one of the state’s scenic rivers, where a state park can be established, Kubitza said the math doesn’t add up.
She noted that Metro Parks offered $1.2 million for the Olentangy property in 2005.
But in 1986, the Sawmill property was valued at $8.3 million, and has certainly appreciated since then, Kubitza said.
“It doesn’t even make sense,” she said.
Kubitza said there’s no comparing the two properties, with no wetlands on the Olentangy property, or even an area that’s suitable for wetlands creation. She said Metro Parks backed out of the deal because it was contaminated.
“It’s polluted,” Kubitza said.
LoParo said the deal is contingent of the developer cleaning up the pollution.
And he emphasized that the Olentangy land, which he contended did have land suitable for wetlands creation, will not be used to mitigate development at the Sawmill site.
“Any wetlands on the Olentangy property would be a bonus,” LoParo said.
Kubitza said the deal, which is pending, would set a bad precedent.
“Their message is that lands that are supposed to be protected are up for grabs,” she said. “They decided to turn their back on this natural area. What natural area is next? That’s a troubling question.”
Both environmental groups said transferring the property to Columbus Parks and Recreation would allow the property to be preserved.
Asked if Ohio Environmental Council would sue DNR, Kubitza said, “We’re weighing our options. We really would like to avoid that. We would like to find an alternative that would suit their needs.”