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1955 - 2005, Fifty Years of Progress in Avon

by Taylor J. Smith, (published in The Morning Journal on 3-20-05)

The sanitary sewer problem -- The mall wars begin
Interchange obcession -- Avon's real problems

Avon entered the 1950's with a bang. A city water system was begun; and, in 1958, a new City Hall was built on Detroit Road. Mayor Lavern Pickering, in his dedication, said "This is a building that will provide adequate space for our growing community for many years to come. We hope you are as proud to accept it as we are to present it to you." In 1998, this municipal building was turned over to the Police Department.

Northgate became Avon's first experience with a large housing development. Avon was forced to operate the Northgate sewage treatment plant to protect the health and safety of its citizens -- storm water infiltration often wiped out the activated sludge -- bringing Avon into direct confrontation with the State of Ohio Water Pollution Control Board (EPA in the 1990's), which issued its first discharge permit to Avon in July, 1955.

By the late 1950's, a few Avonites had enough of progress. A major salt mining company wanted to begin a large underground operation in Avon. It was turned down. In 1961, because of the census of 1960, Avon Village became the City of Avon.

The new prosperity was coming at Avon from all directions. The State had decided to build Interstate 90 through the middle of Avon from west to east. Avon was to be blessed with two interchanges and the proposed relocation of State Route 83. The relocated SR-83 would be a limited access connection between I-90 and I-480 (Route 10).

Some citizens feared that the only thing to be relocated would be the SR-83 -- I-90 interchange, and that the rest of the new SR-83 would never be built. Avon had lived for years with the dog-leg intersection at Center Road and SR-254. The State's proposal threatened to saddle Avon with a super dog-leg of indefinite duration at Center Road, Chester Road, and I-90.

Hostility toward I-90 intensified during the actual construction. Avon found itself caught in a web of regional energy and transportation needs. The Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (called Centerior in the 1990's) supplied fill for the construction of the first section of I-90 in Avon. This fill was taken from borrow pits on CEI property located near the I-90 -- SR 611 intercharge. In 1967, CEI applied for a permit from Avon to fill the borrow pits with fly ash from its electricity generating plant in Avon Lake.

In October, 1967, Avon's Mayor, acting as Safety Director, denied CEI's request for a permit. CEI appealed the Mayor's ruling. In 1969, CEI won its suit in Common Pleas Court. Avon entered the 1970's with fly ash hauling and highway contruction in progress. Avon has recently purchased the filled CEI borrow pit.

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Sanitary sewer issues were regularly placed on the ballot at the insistence of the State. One or more Avon public officials would vigorously attack the sewer plan. The people would defeat the issue, and Avon officials would tell the State that they had done everything they could.

In the spring of 1966, it was urged that Avon, North Ridgeville and Sheffield combine together to form the French Creek Sewer District. Opponents argued that the savings achieved with a large sewage treatment plant would be consumed several times over by the cost of transporting sewage from North Ridgeville to Sheffield through Avon. Some suspected that this "marble outhouse" could be used again and again to defeat any rational sewer plan.

In the spring of 1971, it was proposed that Council sign a contract with the State of Ohio committing Avon to pay $118,000 for French Creek system engineering studies. If Avon signed the contract, the City would be irrevocably committed to the French Creek Sewer project because Avon could not raise that much money on its own. At a dramatic meeting on March 31, 1971, Council rejected the contract by a 4 to 3 vote.

In 1968, the State had imposed a building freeze on Avon. Many citizens welcomed the building freeze because they thought it would stop Avon's growth. A substantial minority had voted for sewers in the past because of problems with their septic tanks and the stink in their backyards. The building freeze convinced some of these people that they could preserve green space in Avon by voting against sewers.

The State changed its tactics after the Council vote on March 31, 1971. In April, the State filed a suit in Lorain County Common Pleas Court asking fines of $500 per day and jail terms for Avon councilmen. The State also billed Avon $40,000 for previous engineering expenses.

All opposition on the Avon Council to signing the $118,000 French Creek contract was crushed. On August 12, the Avon Council submitted to the French Creek Council of Governments an ordinance consenting to the contract. Ground was broken for the French Creek sewer trunkline in December, 1973.

It must have been with horror that the promoters of the French Creek Sewer watched as, like Dr. Frankenstein's monster rising from the table, the marble outhouse creaked and groaned to life.

The sanitary sewer debacle was exceeded by the destruction of the proposed SR-83 relocation. In 1991, Avon contracted with Metro One Design Group to produce a new City master plan. The location of the SR-83 relocation became a bone of contention. Simultaneously, the State offered to build the limited access highway along its existing staked and journalized centerline from Rt. 10 to Lake Erie at almost no cost to Avon.

As a result of the wrangle, the SR-83 relocation was left out of the 1991 master plan; and the State abandoned the project, selling off the property it purchased in Avon, in part where French Creek Square and the new fire station now stand.

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Six years later, the mall wars began. In August, 1997, Mitchell Schneider (First Interstate Development Company) proposed the Avon Commons Shopping Center on Detroit Rd. south of I-90 on the east side of SR-83. Shortly thereafter, on 12-3-97, the men behind the project which came to be known as Vista -- Cleveland Indians owner Richard Jacobs (Richard E. Jacobs Group) and Promenade developer Robert L. Stark (Robert L. Stark Enterprises) -- presented their proposal to Mayor Jim Smith.

On 1-6-98, at a meeting of the French Creek Development Association, Stark said that he and Jacobs would develop 800 acres including a 150-acre shopping center to be centered around a new I-90 interchange at Nagel Road. Stark also took a swipe at Avon Commons and stated, "There will not be two shopping centers here."

First Interstate won initial preliminary site plan approval from the Avon Planning Commission on 1-21-98. On 2-26-98, the Board of Zoning Appeals sided with the Planning Commission. The Board ruled that C2 commercial zonig included all provisions of C3 when a project was more than 10 acres. Avon Commons opponents then appealed to the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas. On 6-8-98, Judge Thomas Janas ruled that the Avon Commons site was improperly zoned for the project.

First Insterstate decided to take the zoning issue to the ballot, getting more than 800 signatures on an initiative petition. Developers Richard Jacobs and Robert Stark then formed a political action committee called Citizens for Good Planning, registered on 10-15-98 at the Lorain County Board of Elections. On 11-3-98, Avon Commons lost by 47 votes. Mitch Schneider blamed the defeat on an intense, last-minute campaign waged by Stark and Jacobs.

In January, 1999, former Avon schools superintendent Robert Barnhart began a petition drive to put Avon Commons back on the ballot. Barnhart said Avon Commons would give residents convenient shopping while also providing the schools and the city an improved tax base.

On 5-13-99 Avon Commons opponents filed a motion with the Ohio Supreme Court asking it to stop the County Board of Elections from conducting the June 1, 1999, special election to approve the zoning.

On 5-20-99, the Lorain County Board of Elections voted 3-0 to reject a challenge to Barnhart's petitions by Avon Commons opponents. Elections board chairman Thomas Smith (a lawyer for the Jacobs Group) abstained.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled on 5-21-99 that the Lorain County Board of Elections would tabulate Avon's June 1, 1999, election results but must not make them public. After votes were counted, the ballots and results would be impounded which means they would be sealed and filed with the Supreme Court. Avon residents would vote on the future of the proposed Avon Commons shopping center, but the results of the special June 1 election would remain a secret.

In a unanimous verdict on 6-23-99, the Ohio Supreme Court denied claims that petition fraud invalidated the June 1, 1999, special election on zoning for the Avon Commons shopping center. The court then commanded the Lorain County Board of Elections to release the election results, which showed that a decisive 60 percent of the voters had said yes to Avon Commons, according to unofficial results. A total of 2,049 votes were in favor, with 1,345 against.

Meanwhile, a new front opened in the mall wars. The Jacobs Group announced on 4-23-99 that its partner, Robert L. Stark Enterprises, had withdrawn from the Vista project.

In 2000, Stark attempted to rezone land in Westlake for Crocker Park, 76 acres of land south of the Promenade Shopping Center on Crocker Road to Planned Unit Development. Residents for a Greener Westlake, supported by the Jacobs Group, opposed the zoning change.

Residents for a Greener Westlake hired URS to analyze a traffic study commissioned by Stark and Carney, the developers for the proposed Crocker Park. According to the URS report, traffic generated by Crocker Park would overwhelm the intersection of Crocker and Detroit Road and the Interstate 90 - Crocker Rd. interchange. On 11-8-00, Westlake voters approved Stark's proposal, Yes 8,296 -- No 6,701, to build Crocker Park.

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Despite successful competition from Avon Commons on the west flank and Crocker Park to the east, the Jacobs Group continued to press for a new I-90 interchange near Nagel Road, perhaps with confidence based on its previous interchange success on I-271, which was receiving some negative criticism:

In March, 2001, State Rep. James Trakas said Jacobs should pay $155 million to Ohio if Jacobs added more big-box stores to plans for the Chagrin Highlands office park in Cleveland's eastern suburbs. Trakas said the payment would reimburse the State for Interstate 271 express lanes and a Harvard Rd. interchange that were built based on assurances from Jacobs that the 630-acre site would attract corporate headquarters and high-paying jobs.

On 1-2-01, the Avon Coucil referred to Planning Commission a traffic study commissioned by the Jacobs Group and conducted by URS. The Jacobs Group study of I-90 traffic concluded that the interchange at SR 83 would not meet the traffic demand of Avon by 2002. However, as of February, 2005, the SR-83 -- I-90 interchange is doing well. Bypassing the dog-leg at Chester Road and adding additional off-ramp lanes would improve rush hour traffic flow.

In October 2001, URS began a $40,000 traffic study for Avon, paid for by a $40,000 donation to Avon from the Jacobs Group, and presented its findings to the Avon Planning Commission on June 12, 2002. Then, in November, 2002, Avon Citizens Traffic Improvement Organization (ACTION) was formed to promote the Nagel Rd. interchange, The Jacobs Group was a member.

On 1-27-03, the Avon Council voted 4-3 against an ordinance that would have changed the Avon master thoroughfare plan to allow an interchange somewhere between Nagel Road and the Cuyahoga County line as recommended by the $40,000 URS study. The impact of more traffic on two schools and a church on Nagel Rd. was a major concern.

The 6-12-02 URS interchange plan had another effect. URS stated that Detroit Rd. should be widened to five lanes to carry cars to the new interchange. URS did not explain how these cars were supposed to reach Detroit Road. The Avon Planning Commission did not reject this part of the URS plan, alarming citizens who were afraid that five lanes of pavement on Detroit Rd. would severely damage Avon's small town atmosphere.

In early 2003, the Avon Charter Review Commission addressed this problem with two proposed charter amendments. The first, Detroit Road Preservation, read in part: "Neither Council nor Planning Commission shall act to widen the pavement on Detroit Road ... in the City of Avon to more than 36 feet, or to divide said pavement into more than three lanes, ... except at intersections and approaches to intersections with arterial or collector public streets."

The second, Landmarks Preservation, in part said "The Landmarks Preservation Commission shall cause to be conducted a survey to establish a register of Avon's landmarks to raise community awareness of Avon's history and historic resources.

The owner of a property in Avon, which is designated a landmark, may appeal to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to have the property removed from the register of landmarks.

No person or governmental body owning a registered landmark shall demolish said landmark without a demolition permit issued by the Commission. The Commission shall issue a demolition permit no later than six months after receiving the application for said permit ..."

Vehicle access streets were proposed as an alternative to adding lanes to Detroit Rd. and to Avon's other original country roads. A vehicle access street has no private driveways and is designed to move cars around Avon. No sidewalks, water lines, gas lines, or sanitary sewer lines would be required.

The question was asked: "Who pays for new lanes of pavement?" If they are added to existing roads, the residents must pay for them; and developers would pay nothing. If these lanes of pavement are put down on new streets (vehicle access streets) the Ohio Supreme Court decision in the Beaver Creek case allows Avon to require developers to pay their fair share.

More importantly, it could be argued, especially since the Mayfield decision by the Ohio Supreme Court, that long stretches of five lanes of pavement on Detroit Road make single family residential use impossible. It could then be argued that the entire length of Detroit Road in Avon should be zoned commercial or multi-family with the possibility of more Section 8 apartments, now, even before another square foot of pavement is added.

Apartments on Detroit Rd. could add 15,000 people to Avon's build-out population, increasing it to 80,000. Avon has an area of 20.9 square miles. Parma has an area of 20.8 square miles and a population of 87,000. Five lanes of pavement on Detroit Road could be consumed by the traffic generated on Detroit Road, reducing its current ability to move cars across Avon.

On November 4, 2003, Avon voters approved Detroit Road Preservation, Yes 2,074, No 1,604. They also approved Landmarks Preservation, Yes 2,193, No 874.

In early 2004, the Avon Council contracted with TranSystems Corporation for a $148,000 interchange study, to be funded by Avon and several local businesses. The first stakeholder meeting was held on April 29, 2004.

One of the stakeholders, George Bliss, said that Avon already has two interchanges that are five miles apart and that, instead of spending millions for a new interchange, Clemens Road in Westlake should be connected to Just Imagine Drive (Chester Road).

George Bliss asked: How can we even think of an interchange at Nagel Road without having a nearby east/west access into Cuyahoga County? It does not make any sense to have Detroit Road/Nagel Road as the only access to this proposed interchange. Moreover, making a connection from Chester Road (Just Imagine Drive) to Clemens Road could alleviate the need for this interchange for years to come.

The $148,000 TranSystems study will be deficient unless it answers the pressing question of how cars will travel to the proposed interchange. Will TransSystems follow URS and recommend five lanes on Detroit Road? How are all these cars supposed to reach Detroit Road? Is spending millions of dollars in federal and state money for another interchange responsible in a region whose population has remained essentially flat for more than 40 years?

What explains the persistent urge to spend millions of tax dollars (perhaps $155 million as required for the new I-271 interchange) on a new I-90 interchange in Avon? No manufacturing company has publicly stated that it would locate in Avon if there were a new interchange.

One possible explanation is that property within one-half mile of the proposed interchange near Nagel Rd. could be zoned commercial for big box stores. As of February 2005, this land, zoned industrial, is selling for $25,000 - $50,000 per acre. With an interchange and commercial zoning, it would sell for $100,000 - $200,000 per acre.

Since the stakeholder meeting of 7-29-04, TranSystems has been unable to develop traffic projections because the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) has not updated the model used for studying traffic patterns.

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Perhaps the most pernicious effect of this interchange obcession is that Council and Planning Commission have been distracted from Avon's real problems:

In 2006 a third lane (turn lane) will be added to Detroit Rd. from SR-83 to SR-611. Meanwhile, more than 1000 homes are under construction from Stonebridge on 611 to French Creek Rd. at Moon Rd., then south to Detroit at Case, then south of Detroit Road. At least 2000 more cars will be coming south on 611, southeast on French Creek Rd., and east on Detroit to converge at the corner of Detroit and 611 just as Detroit is being torn up.

Nothing is being done to provide easy access from west Avon to the I-90 -- SR-611 interchange. Even a readily available measure such as requiring that the new Case Rd., north of Detroit, be a vehicle access street (no private driveways) has been disregarded. Cars from the western devlopments may find that the lesser of the evils is to use the I-90 -- Abbe Road interchange.

It would be a good idea to think ahead about where the money is going to come from to cover the cost of new lanes of pavement to carry all of us around town. The common pasture will only support so many sheep; beyond that, the grass dies for all of us.

The future often surprises us. Avon south of I-90 is not built on a grid. Cars from the expanding maze housing developments pour out on Avon's original country road system. This, in combination with the destruction of the SR-83 relocation, could be a limiting factor in Avon's future growth. Word may get out that it is becoming harder and harder to drive around Avon. Whatever happens, it will be interesting.

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