The Unlikely Tree-Hugger

Developer Bart Wolstein cries green in his quest for a superstore.

The Ark Band Beachland Friday, January 26
Parma Councilman Mike Louis wants to nix a Home - Depot proposed for this spot. - Walter  Novak
Parma Councilman Mike Louis wants to nix a Home Depot proposed for this spot.
Bart Wolstein: Real-estate mogul, sports fan, environmentalist? It may seem an improbable label for the Moreland Hills developer, who once bid for the Browns expansion franchise. After all, here in the cradle of industry, defiling Mother Nature is almost synonymous with development. Yet Wolstein is nonetheless assuming the green mantle in his fight to build a Home Depot in Parma.

In December, Wolstein's Heritage Development Co. sued the U.S. and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies for failing to enforce clean water laws. It also sued the City of Parma and 41 homeowners for contaminating Wolstein's land.

At issue is Heritage's wish to build a retail center, featuring a Home Depot, on 33 acres north of the intersection of Broadview and Pleasant Valley roads. The tree- and brush-covered land sits south of Gettysburg Estates, a neighborhood of one-story brick homes built in the '50s and '60s, Parma's boom years.

The boxy houses and trimmed taxus bushes evoke a middle-class sturdiness. But Heritage claims something foul is gurgling underneath. Attorney Timothy Grendell says untreated fecal matter from the homes' septic tanks is leaking onto his client's property, making the area a "supertoilet."

But what Grendell calls a latrine, the Ohio EPA calls a wetland. And that brings an odd twist to this seemingly minor environmental fray. To construct the retail center, Heritage must do a little despoiling of its own. It needs EPA permission to fill four acres of wetlands and 1,000 feet of stream. To date, the EPA has denied application. So Heritage got clever: It decided to play the victim.

In a sense, Parma's problems are of its own making. To create more building space, Heritage wanted to move high-tension wires that cut through the property. To do that, it asked for a rezoning of three acres around the wires, which the city council approved.

Yet the move had two undesirable effects, says Councilman Mike Louis, who voted against the measure. It pushed the wires closer to the homes and paved the way for a big-box retail center. "This project is just too large," says Louis, whose ward includes the neighborhood. "One hundred and ninety-nine thousand square feet is a big building."

Councilman Sam Bonanno, who sponsored the original rezoning measure, disagrees. He says the Home Depot is good for Parma: Residents will have a place to buy lumber and screws, and the city will have new taxes to collect. The only ones complaining, Bonanno says, are the neighboring residents. "It's zoned commercial. Eventually, something was going to be built there. Maybe the residents didn't do enough to investigate."

Last February, the residents fought back, circulating a petition to put the rezoning to a public vote, but Heritage had the referendum thrown off the ballot on a technicality: A certified copy was not delivered to the city auditor, as is required.

Bonanno says residents have a right to complain and float petitions, but their newfound civic engagement shouldn't be mistaken for anything but self-interest. "I've never seen any of these people before this was being built in their backyard," he says.

Heritage protected its zoning change, but it still needed the Ohio EPA to certify its water-quality application. The company had to show the economic and social benefits of the development outweighed any drop in the water quality of the wetland. As part of its petition, it offered to donate nine acres of wetlands along West Creek.

In May, the EPA held a public hearing. More than 100 residents complained about the prospect of a supersized new neighbor and its halogen-flooded parking lot.

Five months later, the EPA scored one for the residents. The agency said the company's plan would degrade the wetland and two West Creek tributaries, and that the donation of other land was insufficient compensation.

Heritage President John McGill believes the EPA is treating the wetland as if it were a sanctuary for endangered species, when it's little more than a dump. "There is nothing unique about these wetlands," McGill says. "In fact, the uniqueness of these wetlands is that they are contaminated with raw sewage, and they are infested with trash and debris and pallets and shopping carts and beer cans and you name it.

"This is a political issue. This is not an issue particular to these wetlands."

Walter Bubna, an attorney for Gettysburg Estates residents, says Heritage is trying to pressure the city by taking its citizens to court. As evidence, he notes that all the homeowners named in the lawsuit live in Parma, even though homes in neighboring Seven Hills are also suspected of leaking septic slop into the creek. "We think the residents are innocent, and this is just some heavy hitting by a development company," Bubna says.

The homeowner suit is in the discovery phase, and Grendell says Seven Hills residents may be included as the evidence trickles in. Though Heritage may look like an ogre for suing families, McGill says his company has offered a host of options to help install a sewer, as well as create buffers between the development and the neighborhood. "Have we tried to compromise beyond the call of duty? Absolutely, without question. I honestly feel I have given up too much, and I've not received a commitment to develop this."

Besides, Heritage isn't full of poop about the poop. The Cuyahoga County Board of Health inspected West Creek in 1998. "In general, West Creek looks good," environmental supervisor Don Killinger says. "But the area in question was not good, because there is, quite frankly, discharge from homes in Seven Hills and Parma into the creek."

Residents greet the proposed Home Depot with a shrug of the shoulders and a sigh. They figure money and politics will, in the end, trump their tranquillity.

"Progress is going to do what progress wants to do," says Kathy Munaretto, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years. "We don't need any more traffic, and I'm not thrilled about them moving electricity wires 100 feet closer to my home."

Today, homeowner Peter Brady looks out his back window and sees a slice of wilderness. "But if this goes through, a thousand-space parking lot will be less than a hundred feet from my home. Who would want that?

"This is the year 2000. Someone has to put something there, but not a big warehouse."

Neighbors also question whether the retail center is needed. Resident Tony Maglionico says it takes only 10 minutes to drive to two other Home Depots, not to mention the Sears Hardware a block away. He blames the city for trading quality of life for new source of tax revenue. "The City of Parma isn't doing one thing for us," he says. "They're going to cave in on every piece of property. There's nothing left to develop."

The residents' distaste for a neighbor the size of an airplane hangar is understandable. The septic tanks are a sludgier issue.

Councilman Louis concedes the homes are leaking matter murky and brown. A sewer system would solve the problem, but homeowners would shoulder the cost. Each home would be assessed $6,000 to $8,000. Parma Public Service Director Gary Sefl says there has been no hurry to retire the tanks in question, because the bacteria-rich seepage is "going in hot, and by that I mean bad, into the wetland, but it's coming out clean at the other end."

Grendell finds such logic disingenuous. "I would love to have the mayor tell me it's OK to flush my toilet and have the raw sewage go through his property, leaving the bacteria on his property as a cleaning process and then going downstream. If he'd like to do that, then God love him. I think that's insane."

The homeowners seem to believe the discharge is someone else's concern. The tanks, after all, were there when they arrived. "These septic tanks were put in 50 years ago with the permission of the City of Parma," Brady says. "And now, 50 years later, someone is going to tell me there is a problem?

"That's not my problem. My septic tanks are working perfectly."

Munaretto says Heritage should go after the city, if it wants a sewer system so badly. "I have no sewer to connect into," Munaretto says. "Where would you like me to, literally, put my shit?"

Besides, she adds, you can't prove it's her shit.

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