Sawmill wetlands: DNR cancels deal

Columbus — Ohio DNR terminated a proposed land trade that would have put the 17.5-acre Sawmill State Wildlife Education Area into the hands of a developer.

DNR spokesman Matt Eiselstein said the DNR cancelled the deal because the developer failed to meet an April 27 deadline to notify the DNR in advance of a May 7 closing date.

“Contractually, the deal could no longer be met,” Eiselstein said. “We notified the (developer) that the deal was not going to take place.”

The decision came on May 3, under mounting criticism from environmental groups that had claimed that the state didn’t have the right to deal the land away, as it came into state hands in 1996 when another developer filled nearby wetlands to build a Columbus shopping center.

The Ohio Environmental Council filed a lawsuit against the DNR in late February to stop the land deal (Ohio Outdoor News, April 12) .

Cathy Loucas, OEC’s attorney, said the lawsuit will go forward.

“We are just elated and pleased that the DNR took this positive step,” Loucas said. “But the issue of permanent preservation remains.”

When the DNR acquired the land, James Morris, the DNR’s then land management chief, publicly stated that the land would “be managed in perpetuity for preservation purposes,” and the deed states the land came with “the condition that the real property be used and occupied for public purposes.”

But last year, saying the land was little used and no longer served the DNR’s purpose, a DNR spokesperson said the state’s sportsmen would be better served by a 43-acre property along the Olentangy River. The developer was also going to give the DNR $150,000.

Environmental groups were immediately opposed to the deal, stating that even though the land the state was receiving was larger, it was far less valuable than the Sawmill site, which has one of the last remaining high-quality wetlands in the area. The Olentangy site was not suitable for wetlands creation and is polluted, they added.

Loucas is seeking a judicial interpretation of the deed.

“Our interpretation is that the intent of the properties that the property would be preserved permanently,” she said. “We are asking the judge to make that same determination. We ask that the court grant our request for a permanent injunction, prohibiting DNR and any other entity from developing the property.”

And now, with the deal apparently killed, the developer, James Schrim III, of Worthington-based JDS So Cal Ltd., said he intends to file a lawsuit of his own against the DNR for cancelling the deal.

“The DNR does not have the right to cancel the deal,” Schrim said in a phone interview. “We are going to sue them for breach of contract and bad faith. We believe they acted in extreme bad faith and have maliciously frustrated our efforts. We are going to sue them. That’s all I’m going to say.”

Asked to elaborate, Schrim declined further comment.

Eiselstein declined to comment on either Schrim’s threat or the OEC’s pending lawsuit.

“We do not respond to pending or threatened litigation,” Eiselstein said.

Friends of the Sawmill Wetlands, which had backed the environmental groups and criticized the DNR for keeping the property under a lock and key, held an event at the property a day after word was out the deal was terminated.

For the last couple of months, the DNR has been allowing the group to hold a monthly open house at the site, which is normally closed except by reservation.

“It was just a coincidence that our open house was right after word got out,” said Steve McCaw, a Columbus resident who helped form the citizen’s group.

“I was hoping ODNR wanted out of the deal and I was gratified that they did not extend the contract,” said McCaw.

McCaw said his hope is that the land ends up in the hands of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department or The Nature Conservancy, which have both stated publicly that they would welcome the property into their system.

McCaw praised the OEC for its lawsuit and said the grassroots efforts of local citizens were also important.

“I feel the pressure we put on various officials was instrumental in getting them not to proceed with the deal,” said McCaw. “I feel they listened to us. We appreciate that and we look forward to working with (the DNR) to further protect and restore this area.”

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