Brecksville voters will decide in November whether to allow homes on former Highland school site

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BRECKSVILLE, Ohio – Voters here will decide Nov. 8 whether to allow residential construction on the former Highland Drive Elementary School property.

The 21-acre property currently is zoned a “community facilities” district, which among other uses allows schools, religious facilities, public playgrounds and parks, recreation areas, swimming pools, government buildings, libraries, museums, child daycare centers, cemeteries and hospitals — but not homes.

On July 19, City Council voted 6-0 to place on the November ballot a rezoning that would change the Highland school property to an R-20 residential district with minimum 20,000-square-foot lots.

City officials have stated that the rezoning makes sense because the area surrounding the schools is zoned R-20.

However, not all residents, especially those living near the former Highland school, agree.

“We’re scared that a developer not from Brecksville will come in . . . with his bulldozers and cut down all the trees that we have loved, that they’ll move wetlands into our backyards, will squeeze houses in every possible inch of the land within feet of our homes and force us to give up our playgrounds, our baseball field, a (former school) building that I think has a lot of potential and precious greenspace,” Tina Mihalek of Highland told council July 5.

“We fear that our town will become nothing but housing developments with no options for space,” Mihalek said.

Mihalek asked council to slow down and seek input from residents before deciding what to do with the former school property. She also asked council to consider buying the land from the school district and keeping the existing community facilities zoning instead of selling it to a residential developer.

Mayor Jerry Hruby said the city has not ruled out buying the Highland school property from the Brecksville-Broadview Heights schools.

“Some members of council think we should look at the opportunity of obtaining some of that land or all of that land,” Hruby told Mihalek. “Some feel not.”

Rebecca Riser, Brecksville’s director of purchasing, told Tuesday that the city has received no bids to buy the Highland school parcel.

Riser said five people or entities expressed interest in purchasing the Highland school property – as well as the former Chippewa Elementary school, which the Brecksville-Broadview Heights district also wants to sell – but no one submitted an official offer by the city’s July 22 bidding deadline.

Developers might wait until after voters decide the zoning of the Highland property before making an offer.

Real estate deal

Under an agreement between the city and school district, approved in March, the city said it would market and sell both Highland school and the former Chippewa school property on Wiese Road on behalf of the schools.

The school district will no longer need Highland and Chippewa, as it prepares to open the new Brecksville-Broadview Heights Elementary School on Blossom Hill this fall.

Hruby said Ohio law requires school districts to auction off land they want to sell. The city-schools agreement will allow the Brecksville-Broadview Heights district to circumvent that requirement and let the city negotiate purchase prices with various buyers and/or developers.

Hruby said school officials were concerned they wouldn’t receive a fair market value for the properties if they were auctioned off. The Highland and Chippewa properties have been appraised at $1.4 million and 1.1 million, respectively.

Under the city-schools agreement, the city will seek proposals for the redevelopment of the Highland and Chippewa properties. If the city chooses a buyer or developer that would pay less than the appraised value of the land, the school board would vote on whether to accept those offers. If the board accepts the low offers, all the money from the sales would go to the district.

If a buyer/developer pays more than the appraised values sought by the district, the amount received in excess of the appraised values — up to $250,000 — would go into an enterprise fund supporting the new elementary school on Blossom Hill.

Any amount received in excess of that $250,000 would be split between the city and schools.

The city has until Dec. 31 to relay offers and/or proposals for the properties to the school district.

Under a Brecksville Planning Commission recommendation, if the Highland school property isn’t developable for some reason — due to the presence of federally protected wetlands, for example — the city would be permitted to develop a park, athletic fields, walking trails or even a cemetery on the property.

Buy that land

At the July 9 council meeting, resident Mike West, who lives near Highland school, said the schools would receive “a little money” and a developer would receive “a lot of money” with a rezoning of Highland school.

“And what do us residents get?” West said. “We get nothing, except the loss of a beautiful parcel.”

West suggested scheduling a series of public meetings where residents can express their opinions regrading the Highland school property.

Mihalek said she conducted an informal Facebook survey regarding the Highland school land. She said that of the 245 responses she received from Brecksville residents, 61 percent called for park space and/or sports fields on the property. Some suggested an amphitheater, a daycare/senior center or cemetery space.

Mihalek said 11 people recommended housing, but they wanted smaller housing that seniors and young families can afford. She said most housing in Brecksville is too expensive for those populations.

“My goal today is to humbly encourage the city of Brecksville to purchase the Highland Drive property,” Mihalek told council. “We ask that you keep it as a community facility and to give residents the gift of time and to decide what’s next for this public parcel of land.”

Steve Schadler of Cinnabar Drive said the city earlier this year conducted a survey asking residents whether consumer-grade fireworks should be allowed in town. He said the city should do the same when it comes to the Highland school property.