Reporting, writing and photos by Abbey Marshall
Tune into any Monday night City Council meeting and you’ll hear demands for conservation in the Merriman Valley in the public comment section. Spread open local papers and you’ll find a letter penned to the editor opposing development in the Valley.
And if you drove through the Valley on Nov. 7 and 14, you would have seen protesters standing along Merriman Road, with colorful signs demanding “no more development.”
“There’s a huge groundswell in our community related to serial development in the Valley,” says Andrew Holland, a Cuyahoga Falls resident who lives in Merriman Valley and is working to oppose development on an Akron city-owned property for sale. “Our goal is to make the city see that development will benefit no one in our community.”
Preserve the Valley mobilized when the city announced earlier this year that it would begin fielding bids for a 45-acre plot of woodlands along the border of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park at Theiss and Hardy roads. The Theiss Road plot received six bids.
Five of those were from developers planning to spend tens of millions of dollars to create a new residential subdivision with 65 to 110 single-family homes, many of which would be priced between $200,000 and $300,000.
If the city decides to sell the land to developers, Director of Planning and Urban Development Jason Segedy notes that it could push Akron toward city officials’ goal of 250,000 residents by 2050. Segedy says a diverse housing market could offer competitive alternatives to the suburbs. Though Merriman Valley is split between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, the Theiss Road property falls within Akron, meaning the homes built would be eligible for the city’s property tax abatement program. That program is also attractive to homeowners looking to move into the city.
“Looking to grow our own population, this is an area that could be desirable for people to live in,” Segedy says, citing the neighborhood’s proximity to the national park, Blossom Music Center and other amenities. “In our overall plans to grow this city, we want to create many different environments for people to live in, whether that’s in an apartment downtown or living in a subdivision on the edge of the city in an area like this.”
The sixth bidder, Western Reserve Land Conservancy, offered the city at least $361,520 — the city’s minimum asking price — to conserve the plot of land. Residents urged the city to accept that bid in lieu of development.
“It’s not just the cliche ‘developers versus people who hug trees,’” says Shelley Pearsall, a resident of Merriman Valley who started a petition that has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures in opposition to development. “Obviously, I’d like the green space preserved, but I think there’s opportunities for recreation and other benefits to the community.”
The city originally planned to select a bid in November, but Segedy told The Devil Strip the city will reopen the request for bids — this time for conservation proposals.
“We’ve received very few comments from people who want the additional housing development [on Theiss Road],” says Shammas Malik, the city council member who represents Ward 8, which includes parts of the Merriman Valley. “It is notable that people really do talk about the need for preservation of green space, and that fits in with the character of the Valley.”
The decision to reopen bids was in part due to the residents’ demands and organizing in recent months, but Segedy says the city is open to any possibility and wants to be thorough in its search.
“I think the original genesis for this [new request for bids] was when one of the proposals that originally came in was for conservation,” he says. “That got us thinking that maybe there is an option here for that as well. I think it’s fair to say that many of the comments from members of the public factored in, as we’re certainly willing to listen to those folks and look at alternatives.”
Mayor Dan Horrigan, who gets to make a recommendation to the planning commission before the deal heads to City Council for approval, may still opt to sell the land to a developer or not sell it at all.
Some residents and visitors want to see the area untouched and are urging the city to seriously consider conservation bids.
“The river, the valley — those aren’t ours. Those are for the ages. They’re ours to protect, not ours to exploit,” said Jodie M. Grasgreen, a Highland Square resident who frequents the Valley and organizes with the Preserve the Valley group. “I understand the money issue, but there’s other ways to do it. I think we can grow and be economically viable without sacrificing and exploiting the gifts we have.”
Segedy acknowledges the value of the area’s natural importance, saying the city would like to develop in tandem with the neighborhood’s resources. But he believes development in the neighborhood is inevitable.
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“There are people that think the Valley should be off limits, but many of those same people actually live in the Valley,” Segedy says. “There is a part of me that feels it’s a bit hypocritical that they’re living there and have stormwater runoff from their property and have preemptively reacted that no one else can live in the Valley.”
Residents fought a similar battle in 2018 and 2019, when plots of land at Sourek Trail and the former Sycamore Valley Golf Course in Cuyahoga Falls were rezoned for residential development. Plans for those sites included more than 140 townhomes each.
In addition, the site of the former Riverwood Golf Course in Akron is being considered for development pending approval for required rezoning. If approved, Petros Development Group plans to construct 197 residential townhome units on 78 acres of land.
The Riverwood Golf Course project is on the planning commission’s Nov. 20 agenda. After they make a recommendation, the proposal will move to City Council for approval, though Malik is recusing himself due to possible conflicts with a law firm at which he was previously employed.
The city recently announced a joint effort between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls — the two municipalities that include parts of the Merriman Valley — to create a master plan for the neighborhood. The two cities plan on choosing a consultant to create a master plan at the end of the year and completing that plan by the end of 2021.
The planning process will begin in early January. Segedy said he does not anticipate that a bidder will be selected for the Theiss Road property before then.
“We need to have a plan and take a step back to look at the whole Valley,” Malik says. “The decisions we make now will last for decades and decades and decades, so we need to engage and listen to the folks there. Opening up Theiss Road for conservation bids is a good move and responsive to the community, but we have to continue to engage the public and make sure what happens fits into a greater plan.”
While the master plan will not prohibit development in the Valley, Segedy says the cities will look at how to make development coexist with the environment.
“I’m not against any and all development in the Valley,” says Holland, the Merriman Valley resident opposed to the development on Theiss Road. “I’m against development without a plan.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.