Dan Pompili and David Knox | The Gazette
Westfield Township’s two newly elected trustees have gone to court seeking to block a proposed out-of-court settlement that would allow full commercial development of 105 acres along Greenwich Road now zoned primarily for rural homes.
William Thombs and Michael Schmidt, who won trustee seats in last month’s election but won’t take office until Jan. 1, filed “a motion to intervene” in a lawsuit brought by Timothy and Linda Kratzer in Medina County Common Pleas Court.
The Kratzers filed the lawsuit in August after their request for a variance was rejected by the township Board of Zoning Appeals.
The suit charges the township violated the Kratzers’ right to develop their property at 5669 Greenwich Road, southeast of the interchange of Interstates 71 and 76/U.S. Route 224 and west of Chippewa Creek.
In their motion, filed Thursday, Thombs and Schmidt argue that they should be allowed to intervene in the case because the proposed settlement would not go into effect until after they take office on New Year’s Day.
They also charge that the settlement “is not in the best interest of the residents of Westfield Township and seeks to overturn the Westfield Township voters referendum decision of November 2011,” which overturned a trustees’ rezoning of the Kratzers’ property from rural residential, with only limited commercial frontage, to full commercial use.
The settlement is backed by trustees Gary Harris and Ronald Oiler, who voted for the rezoning in 2012 and were defeated in the November election by Thombs, who led the referendum petition drive, and Schmidt, who chaired the Board of Zoning Appeals that rejected Kratzers’ variance request in July.
Thombs charged Harris and Oiler are trying to push the settlement through before they leave office Dec. 31.
“That’s why they’re trying to rush it through, because they know they won’t get their way next year,” Thombs said.
Harris and Oiler voted to offer the settlement to the Kratzers following a special meeting Dec. 11 with legal counsel at the Medina County Prosecutor’s Office. The third trustee, Jim Likley, voted “no.”
In addition to allowing commercial development, the proposed settlement would pay the Kratzers $15,000 in unspecified compensation.
The Kratzers have declined to comment and directed all inquiries to their attorney, Todd Hunt of Walter and Haverfield in Cleveland. Hunt has not returned calls for comment.
Residents push for delay
Joining Thombs and Schmidt in the motion to intervene are five residents who own land bordering or near the Kratzers’ land: Shirley McDougal, Everett Perry, Amy Huttinger, Joseph F. Hastings and Eugene Sulzener.
They cited a variety of reasons why they would be damaged by commercial development of the Kratzers’ property.
Perry, Huttinger and Hastings are farmers who say the increased traffic would make it “harder and more dangerous to move (their) large equipment and crops on the roads.”
McDougal said she feared “my property values will go down” and there may be increased taxes for police and fire protection … a decrease in water supply for the wells” and an “increase in crime, noise and light pollution.”
Sulzener, who owns property next to Chippewa Creek downstream from the Kratzers’ property, said water runoff from development could worsen flooding problems in the area.
The motion asks the court to postpone a public hearing Friday during which the settlement will be explained to residents if the Kratzers accept it, and to hold off any ruling on the settlement.
A ruling on the motion will be made by Common Pleas Judge Christopher J. Collier. Judge James L. Kimbler had been assigned the case, but withdrew this week citing a personal relationship with the Kratzers.
“I went to school with Tim Kratzer and I represented his daughter in a civil case when I was in private practice,” Kimbler said.
Who advised to settle?
Thombs and Schmidt also have charged Harris with misleading residents by implying that the settlement was offered on the recommendations of the township’s legal counsel, which includes county Prosecutor Dean Holman.
Thombs cited a letter Holman sent to the trustees on Monday to correct “a misunderstanding in the settlement process, which I wanted clarified.”
“Any decision to settle is a determination to be made by the majority of the board,” Holman wrote. “This office has not made any recommendation either way.”
In an interview with a Gazette reporter, Holman stressed that he was not criticizing trustees.
“They’re doing what they think is in the best interest of the township,” he said. “However, it is their decision and theirs alone.”
But several residents contacted by The Gazette said they have heard Harris say that the settlement was offered on the advice of attorneys.
Rory O’Neil, a prominent local contractor and developer, said he spoke with Harris on Sunday.
O’Neil, a land developer for 50 years, said he criticized the settlement and asked Harris why he didn’t let the incoming trustees handle it.
“He said he was advised by attorneys to settle because there were liability issues and there would be additional costs if it went to court,” O’Neil said.
Asked about his statements, Harris told The Gazette, that the attorney he was talking about was James Mathews of Baker, Dublikar, Beck, Wiley and Mathews, of North Canton, who represents the township’s insurance provider OTARMA.
Mathews declined to comment, saying he could not discuss conversations he had with trustees.