by Frank Lewis
The Towpath Trail/Cleveland Flats land deal at the center of a recent controversy (“Who Sold Out the Towpath?”, March 10) has yet to be finalized, as a state agency scrutinizes appraisals commissioned for the property exchange.
The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land-conservation group, has worked out a $4.8 million purchase of two parcels of riverfront property on the Scranton Peninsula, totaling 11 acres and owned by developers John Ferchill and Scott Wolstein. The nonprofit had the land appraised to determine how much state grant money would be paid to developers; critics of the deal say the appraisals were inflated.
The appraisals are being reviewed this week by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which is still holding $500,000 needed to complete the land deal. Dave Vasarhelyi, a project manager with the Trust for Public Land’s Cleveland office, says the ODNR wanted to know more about the appraisals in light of the controversy. A decision is expected by the end of the week, says Dameyon Shipley, a state administrator.
The same appraisals passed an earlier state review that allowed the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to secure nearly $3.2 million in state grant money (private money will make up the difference in the $4.8 deal). The land transfer has yet to take place as the nonprofit waits for approval, says Vasarhelyi.
However, critics continue to howl about the deal, noting that properties adjacent to the 11-acre site were appraised by the Ohio Department of Transportation at a much lower value. The ODOT appraisal process, by law, requires two separate evaluations and an independent internal review. No such law or check and balance exists in the process of obtaining public money for projects like the Towpath.
The TPL-commissioned appraiser valued the Flats property at $22.50 a square foot. But the ODOT appraisal for nearby parcels averaged about $7 a square foot, and adjustments were made for each parcel. And unlike the appraisal for TPL, the ODOT appraisals take features like waterlogged land and bridge abutments into account.
Vasarhelyi maintains that the Trust For Public Land picked a state-approved appraiser and that his agency in no way manipulated the appraisal process.
Critics of the grant award process, including heads of nonprofits and a lawyer representing an anonymous client, say public officials have punted their concerns and want more accountability. They have a new ally in Bill Patmon, a candidate for state representative in District 10. Patmon says the appraisals and the overall state grant process needs to be scrutinized by lawmakers. “For a situation like this to arise at a time when the public’s trust in our government has been eroded by county-wide corruption flies in the face of all reason,” says Patmon. — Damian Guevara