Opponents ask court to block Akron's sale of White Pond property to developer

The city of Akron has posted no trespassing signs on the corner of White Pond and Pine Grove at the front of a vacant lot pending its sale to Triton Property Ventures LLC.
The city of Akron has posted no trespassing signs on the corner of White Pond and Pine Grove at the front of a vacant lot pending its sale to Triton Property Ventures LLC.

Opponents of the sale of city-owned White Pond property in Akron's Wallhaven neighborhood are asking Summit County Common Pleas court to block the deal.

Mendenhall Law Group, representing an organization called LEAD for Pollinators Inc. and several local residents, filed a challenge to the sale Monday in the Summit County Court of Common Pleas.

Council's Dec. 12 vote to sell the 68-acre White Pond wetland area to a developer was approved by a 7-6 vote majority, below the nine-member (or two-thirds) threshold that would otherwise be required by the city code of ordinances, the plaintiffs contend.

The request for an injunction comes after the city law department hired an outside law firm for an opinion on the matter. The law firm, Akron-based Roetzel & Andress, said the city's conduct in approving the sale was appropriate, mainly because City Council is not bound by an ordinance approved by a prior council. The opinion also stated City Council had actually complied with terms of the ordinance.

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Akron Law Director Eve Belfance, citing the outside firm's opinion, previously rejected the plaintiffs' request to stop the sale.

The developer and buyer — White Pond Reserve LLC and Triton Property Ventures — had hoped work on the project would begin this year and could be completed as early as 2026.

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What Akron's code, charter say regarding land sales

The statute in question is part of the city’s 1990 ordinance governing public contracts and property. Section 34.27, specifically, addresses the "procedure for sale of City real estate," and reads in full:

“On a finding by Council that real estate is not needed for public use, the property shall be advertised for sale once a week for three consecutive weeks in a newspaper of general circulation within the city, and shall be conveyed to the highest bidder upon approval of the Board of Control. However, advertising maybe dispensed with and the sale made to a named grantee at a fixed price when Council specifically so authorizes by a two-thirds vote of its members.”

More:Citizens say Akron City Council, mayor violated city law with White Pond land sale

Mendenhall and the plaintiffs are arguing council was bound to follow the ordinance, because "Akron Charter Section 125 states all ordinances not inconsistent with the Charter are in force until amended or repealed."

The complaint states council did not properly advertise the sale and therefore was required to have a two-thirds majority to approve the land's sale to a named buyer.

According to the Roetzel & Andress opinion, the two-thirds voting requirement is not enforceable against the current City Council because council has authority under the Akron City Charter to approve the sale of the property by majority vote.

The opinion also argues that council actually complied with the ordinance because council met terms allowing a simple majority vote. Council made a finding that the property was unsuitable for public use, the land's sale was advertised on the city website and the sale was approved by the city's board of control.

The opinion says a 2020 charter change removed the requirement for newspaper advertising.

What the White Pond development would include

The property, purchased in 2006 for more than $7 million, was approved for sale at $25,000 per developable acre (29 acres) for a total purchase price of $725,000. Wetland areas would not be developed.

Developers and the city say the $50 million to $55 million mixed-use project would include up to 238 high-end town homes, ranch-style homes and apartments with monthly rents of $1,600 to $2,300. After initial public opposition, the city and developers came up with an amended plan, reducing proposed retail space from 60,000 to 30,000 square feet of retail, or enough for three to five commercial tenants.

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The developer and home buyers would not be required to pay property taxes on the new residential portion of the plan for the next 15 years per a citywide tax abatement program Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan implemented in his first term.

According to the city, property tax and tax increment financing revenue would provide an additional $8.8 million to Akron Public Schools and $200,000 to the Public Arts Council over the first three decades after completion of the project, with the property tax revenue coming from the non-residential portion in the first 15 years and the entire property, following the expiration of the abatement, in the next 15 years. Another $15,000 would be paid by the developer into the city's tree fund.

The city also estimated additional income tax starting at about $102,000 each year, with additional tax revenue expected from operating profits of the businesses, property management and rental income.

Other concerns cited on White Pond property

In a statement, LEAD for Pollinators Executive Director Michele Colopy, a nearby resident, said the group and "Save White Pond" neighbors do not support the housing development project.

"This land on White Pond Drive should remain in its natural state to continue to provide free ecological service to this neighborhood, and the greater Akron and Summit County community for its valuable contribution to community health, mosquito control, pest control, and flood control," she said.

She also referred to "many unanswered questions," including one concerning the overall project.

"The project design has changed many times since June, due in great part, to citizen comments, and the issue of building on wetlands, but why does it keep changing?" she asked

White Pond fight:'Greatly abused piece of land': Neighbors continue to fight development in Akron

She also questioned the city's apparent loss of around $7 million, among other issues, such as whether the developer would be stuck paying environmental costs, or leave the development in the hands of a homeowners association.

The property had been partially used for years as a dump by the city, its former owners, and as a concrete plant, but many opposed to its development say the complex would displace wildlife and ruin a property they have enjoyed as a natural oasis in the middle of the city.

In previous comments about the project, Horrigan said the city needs the development if it wants to attract residents and support the employment, retail and infrastructure investment.

“This development will exist somewhere in Summit County," he said. "Why should we be content allowing this massive investment to go to a suburb of Akron when we could embrace it right here and help spur more growth for our residents and our local economy?”

Doug Livingston and Emily Mills contributed to this report. Eric Marotta can be reached at emarotta@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarottaEric.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Opponents of Akron's sale of White Pond property take case to court