Colerain Township Fire Chief Allen Walls has moved full steam ahead, evicting 400+ kids in the Colerain Little Cards Football & Cheer program from Groesbeck Park in order to build a new fire station right dab in the middle of their football field. The football field is the only publicly available field in the township for the kids. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources says their hands are tied to enforce the terms of their grant agreements.
CHIEF BREAKS “PINKY PROMISE”; “FLIPPING THE BIRD to 400 KIDS”
Despite the chief “pinky promising” the Little Cards football players a “bigger, better” facility, the chief and the township have come up empty-handed. While the chief claims a deal is close, the township misleads the public on its website claiming they have secured a facility:
[A] new site has been located that will result in additional practice space as the new location is 3 acres in size, compared to the existing 2-acre field.
According to Carrie Davis, director of Child Advocacy for Rights & Equity, Inc., the township is “lying” and, essentially, the chief is “flipping the bird to 400 kids” as the contractors tear down their field. There were other options to site a firehouse, rather than taking away the Little Cards field that has operated at this site under various names since 1967.
In fact, the township’s first option was building the firehouse adjacent to St. Ann’s Church. Originally, that was the plan per the Groesbeck Strategic Plan, 2022 (see map, Page 11). It was later proposed to be at the southern end of the park next to St. Ann’s. The idea to destroy the football field in the center of the park was never approved by the residents.
This also coincides with the Greater Groesbeck Plan, a neighborhood reimagination plan created by residents and presented to the Township Trustees
However, the firehouse was moved after Tim Clifford, Director of Stewardship & Parish Resources, objected to moving the playground used for the school's recess in order to accommodate the fire station.
The church has powerful backing. Former Senator Lou Blessing and his son, the current Senator Louis “Bill” Blessing, belong to St. Ann's Parish. That plan was quickly - and quietly - scuttled from consideration and the fire chief and township trustees set their sights on the Little Cards’ football field, without any public input, contradicting the entire premise of the publicly vetted, Growing Groesbeck Strategic Plan.
THE APPLE DOESN’T FALL FAR FROM THE TREE
This isn’t the first time the church influenced who benefits from the 15 acres donated by a nonprofit for youth athletic facilities. Some 20 years ago, Davis ran "the longest yard" to prevent St. Ann’s from unjustly benefitting from and controlling the property.
St. Ann’s desperately coveted the property to use as a playground for their school and to generate revenues for the parish by creating a premier sports complex they would control, according to the minutes of St. Ann’s parish quoted in an article written in 2007. Offers to buy the property were rebuffed multiple times over the decades. As reported by John Knoll in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in an article titled, "Blessings Field of Dreams", (2007), then-Senator Lou Blessing II, used his office to garner $1.4M in state taxpayer funding to renovate the property. Of that, over $100K was paid to St. Ann’s to buy a gulley on their property in order to have taxpayers pay for the water diversion needed to build up the park. In order to qualify for taxpayer-funded grants, Blessing transferred the property to the township while simultaneously executing a lease with them for his nonprofit's exclusive use of the park. Per the article:
The deal: Blessing's group gave the land to the township so it could qualify for the grant. The township agreed to lease the property back to Blessing's group for 25 years, giving it "exclusive use and control" of the public park.
Knoll reported that Blessing's nonprofit board included 4 members of St. Ann’s leadership. The 5th member was the president of the “Little Cards,” a necessary appointment, to convince the original owners to agree to transfer the land to him. In a recent interview, one of the confirmed officers of the Colerain Civic Association, Inc., who prefers to remain anonymous, the board donated the land with the expressed intent of maintaining the property as a public park and guaranteeing the Little Cards football program continuing, in perpetuity, per the plans submitted to the board and specified in the application to ODNR for funding.
Davis was successful in proving the Blessing’s conflict of interest in an investigation by state officials. The ODNR directed the township to cancel the lease with Blessing’s nonprofit that held it as a private park or return the $1.4M in taxpayer funding received to develop the property. The township opted for the former and St. Ann’s Parish, via Blessings’ nonprofit, forfeited their control of the facility. Knoll reported of the costs to make the 15 acres a public park:
Blessing acknowledges that the project has been expensive, but he said it's necessary to capture "one of the remaining green spaces left" for kids' recreation.
Today, 20 years later they are paving over the "green space" and evicting 400 kids from the park. Davis, again, is fighting to protect the park. Davis alleges, “the political apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Davis believes:
The township has made a deal with the devil - again, and chosen to let the wants of the senator’s parish supplant the needs of the public to retain this park for the benefit of all – including the Little Cards.
THE OHIO DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES (DNR) HANDS TIED
Davis contends that the township has violated the law and contractual obligations in the following ways:
· Failed to journalize a deed restriction prohibiting the use of the property for any purpose other than those uses fundable by “green space” or for “recreational purposes”
· Failed to get required approval from ODNR before “converting” the property to an unallowed use on 2 occasions, first in selling park lands for personal gain of a business and now, to reduce costs for the fire department
· Violated public records law by refusing to release documents pertaining to the firehouse at Groesbeck Park.
· Changing funding streams without a public meeting, violating Open Meetings law
· Failing to erect proper signage denoting the protected status of the parklands
· Failing to bring their “accessible” parks up to standards
· Violating the terms of transfer requiring continued use exclusively as a park
· Changing the zoning code for the property without holding public hearings.
Per the township’s Nature Works Grant Application, Form 5 Evidence of Ownership and Boundary, Page 25:
If part(s) of the project area is intended for, or is currently in non-recreational use, that area must be outlined on the map. Failure to do this will prohibit any future non-recreational structures or facilities (municipal water towers, cell towers, fire stations, etc.) on the site."
and Form 10 Acknowledgment of Compliance, on page 32 :
The NatureWorks project area must be perpetually operated and maintained solely for public recreation ... purposes. The area cannot be converted in use or title without prior approval of the Director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources."
The director of natural resources shall administer the parks and natural resources local assistance grant program in accordance with procedures and criteria that the director shall develop with the approval of the recreation and resources council.
She, nor her predecessors, have ever issued such policies. This makes it near-impossible for the state to enforce the terms of its contracts. Staff at ODNR are therefore restricted from using other enforcement mechanisms to protect public funds and Ohio residents.
The Ohio Auditor of State, Keith Faber, has never cited the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for failing to perform their statutory duty to promulgate policy. Because of these lapses in the state’s system of checks and balances to perform such menial tasks as checking to make sure the deed restriction was properly recorded, the residents of Colerain and the state have little recourse against the Fire Chief and Colerain Township trustees. Under the rules passed by the Ohio legislature, including State Senator “Bill” Blessing and their State Representative Cindy Abrams, the ODNR can only impose:
- small fines,
- require them to pay off the balance of the grants remaining and
- issue punitive points against the township when they make future requests for grant funding for township projects.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) held a staff meeting last week seeking a solution and concluded their “hands are tied,” said Jeffrey Swick, Deputy Legal Counsel for the ODNR. When asked how many other recipients of “green space” or “recreational” funding have been “converted” to non-approved “uses,” he said he’s never had a jurisdiction renege on the terms of their agreement and “convert” a park property for unpermitted purposes without seeking authorization.
Coming up empty-handed, herself, Davis has initiated communications with the federal funding authorities for claims of intentional fraud and misappropriation of federal funds. Absent federal intervention, the township has illegally misappropriated park lands for unallowed purposes.
The township isn't intimidated by enforcement actions. It is used to being in legal controversies.
THE MOST LITIGATED TOWNSHIP IN THE STATE
The Colerain Township administrator, Jeff Weckbach, its trustees: Cathy Ulrich, Dan Unger, and Matt Wahlert, as well as, Fire Chief Walls have all been advised of their legal duties under the contract. It's crystal clear. However, the township’s law director, Scott Sollman, has advised them to move forward with the demolition of the park property and risk further litigation despite their clear obligations.
In an email dated October 10, 2023, from Timothy Robinson, Recreation Services Administrator – Office of Real-Estate, the township was advised of their legal duties:
Understanding the grant closeout date is within the 15-year compliance period, the Township should certainly coordinate with ODNR prior to converting the use of the park property to a non-recreational use. I have copied Jeff Weckbach from Colerain Township on this email reply to initiate that coordination with the Township. “
Sollman has walked the township into several lawsuits (here and here and here) over the years resulting in taxpayers paying both Sollman’s part time salary of $130K / year, in addition to paying him $160/hour used to lose a lot of avoidable cases and payout big settlements. Colerain Township is one of the most litigated jurisdictions in the state and has lost the majority of these actions. Colerain has also evaded litigation from former employees by paying out large settlements for wrongful termination when staff complained of being required to violate Ohio law and their own policies.
Now, the township must test its luck with federal oversight authorities, putting at risk possible repayments of millions in COVID funds.