Collinwood Project Prompts Resignation, City Planning said to be "Corrupted by Favoritism"

click to enlarge Collinwood Project Prompts Resignation, City Planning said to be "Corrupted by Favoritism"
The lot in question in North Collinwood/Google Maps
In a scathing letter Monday, Cleveland historian and writer Carol Poh resigned from the Design Review Committee of the Cleveland Planning Commission, saying she could longer serve a city department that "engages in political favoritism and fails to uphold the protections of the zoning code for its citizens."

Poh's resignation, effective immediately, was motivated by the Board of Zoning Appeals' approval of what she called a "grotesque" two-story "McMansion" on an eroding lot in North Collinwood, the neighborhood where she has lived for thirty years.

Scene reported on the zoning controversy in January.

Poh's letter was addressed to Planning Director Freddy Collier and copied to Mayor Frank Jackson, Law Director Barbara Langhenry and others. In it, she reiterated Collinwood residents' frustration and sense of injustice after they attended a meeting of the Board of Zoning Appeals in late 2019 where their concerns were dismissed. 

"These citizens assumed their voices would be heard, that the facts were on their side, and that they would prevail; it never occurred to them to bring a lawyer," Poh wrote. "They had no idea that the prospective builder would be represented by a well-connected lawyer named Tony Coyne—the same Tony Coyne who served for twenty-five years on the Cleveland City Planning Commission, fifteen of these as chairman—nor that your own staff had already greased the wheels in advance by tweaking the design of the project so that Mr. Coyne could point to the builder’s willingness to make 'concessions.'"

Poh wrote that the BZA approved a variance which allowed the builder to construct the home despite the near-unanimous objections of neighbors and City Councilman Mike Polensek. The approval, she said, was an abuse of public trust, a harm to the environment, and an insult to the planning department's own objectives, which include a vision for the sustainable reuse of vacant land.

In January, neighbors told Scene they feared the new structure and its three-car garage would fall into the lake — the lot is a state-designated coastal erosion area — and that the owner would walk away, leaving the neighborhood to deal with the environmental and financial ramifications.

"The bottom line is this," Poh concluded in her Monday letter: "I choose not to serve a planning department corrupted by political favoritism in a city where no property owner can feel safe from the despoilment of her neighborhood."

Through a city spokesperson, Planning Director Freddy Collier has not yet provided comment for Scene on Poh's departure or her characterizations of his department as one which advances the interests of wealthy, well-connected insiders over ordinary citizens.

But Collier did respond directly to Poh. In an email, he thanked her for her years of service and defended the planning department's design review process against her allegations.

Decisions are not made in isolation. Rather they consider input from Residents, Council, and City Staff. The situation you referenced was controversial but went through a democratic process. Sometimes the process doesn’t work out in our favor, but the beauty of democracy is that everyone gets a chance to be heard. The words used in your correspondence were very strong. Using words like corrupted when the determination was made that did not align with your desires is concerning. I however respect your position given your passion for the neighborhood. Please respect the posture of the boards and commissions with respect to their position. We all want to see investment in our neighborhoods and the quality of life improved in our City.

With regard to Mr. Coyne, we are currently in total opposition regarding a piece of legislation regarding retail establishments and do not see eye to eye. I mention this so you are clear, that there are no special alliances or favoritism with anyone.

Poh fired back succinctly.

"Your letter below is bull crap," she wrote. "'Democratic process' my foot. If there had been a democratic process, you would not have connived, in advance of the BZA hearing, to fix the result. Please don’t point to an aberration in your favoritism toward Tony Coyne by singling out a single exception. It doesn’t wash."

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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