They've gathered to assail a proposed 430-home development that would increase housing in the sparsely populated township by nearly 50 percent. Dressed up as a public hearing of the Auburn Zoning Commission, the meeting swiftly morphs into a high-octane bitch session. The objects of derision: four representatives of the developer, Westlake's King James Group, huddled in a corner of the altar.
"I want you to look at me when I'm talking to you," says John Tucker, who has taken care to jot down his rant. "I consider you development terrorists. All you want is money -- and we don't want you."
Cheers go up, and other speakers pile on, ridiculing the King James contingent as "outsiders" and "city slickers" who "know nothing about Auburn." Some insults are more personal. One audience member brands a King James lawyer a "liar." Another mutters that a dour company rep -- a dead ringer for Weakest Link host Anne Robinson -- has "anger management issues."
"Screw 'em!" a man hollers, summing up the mood.
The Us vs. Them sentiment prevails among Auburn's 3,200 residents, who believe the township must thwart large-scale development to keep its rural charm. Yet one look around the church reveals just how non-rural Auburn's population has become -- leather jackets and tasseled loafers, not overalls and work boots, fill the pews.
Over the past five years, the township has absorbed an influx of expatriate suburbanites, who sought to escape urban sprawl by settling 35 miles southeast of downtown Cleveland. Now, while they still work in the city or its nearby suburbs, they live in swanky, Colonial-style homes that sit on three-acre lots and cost in the low- to mid-six figures. Far removed from the strip-mall plague, they enjoy the LaDue Reservoir, the Husted Preserve, and the rest of nature's bounty.
In short, they're transplanted yuppies, and they vilify King James for pitching a project that invariably would attract more of their breed to this corner of Geauga County. It's as if, having crossed the moat into rustic paradise, they're pulling up the drawbridge to shut out followers -- never mind that their own arrival displaced area farmers.
The irony of such First World woes is not entirely lost on a township where the average family income approaches $60,000 -- a figure that continues to rise as more newcomers flood in. Residents say they figured developers would start stalking Auburn sooner or later. But just because they saw it coming doesn't mean they're not going to squeal.
Tucker, who moved with his wife and daughter to Auburn in 1998, recognizes that residents' gripes sound like a small-town variation on Pat Buchanan's anti-immigrant rhetoric.
"[But] I'm not saying close the gates," says Tucker, marketing manager of a Solon electronics firm. "If people want to move in, do what we did -- buy the land."
He's referring to the Auburn zoning code, which requires a minimum lot size of three acres for single-family dwellings -- a proviso that residents say guards against cheek-by-jowl growth. (Homes built in small-scale developments, such as Tucker's, can have lots under three acres.)
King James wants to develop lots a half-acre and smaller on 486 acres of old farmland. Under Auburn's zoning code, developers can apply for an amendment to the three-acre minimum if they own more than 75 contiguous acres.
The King James proposal, dubbed Farmstead, touts the benefits of cluster housing. Instead of homes spread over the entire site, they would be built within a roughly 150-acre area. The developer would give Auburn 28 acres, set aside another 82 for agricultural fields, and leave 225 untouched.
Dale Markowitz, a lawyer for King James, argues that the cluster approach would maintain Auburn's rural appeal better than scattering 162 homes on three-acre lots across the property. The project would require fewer roads, keep more land open, and generate more taxes, he says.
He also deflects criticism of the number of homes, saying that King James could build almost 1,000 houses with zoning approval, but plans for fewer than half that many. "The point of it all is, you have the ability to keep so much of this land preserved and have people paying taxes."
The yuppies aren't buying.
"That's like saying we'll kill you quickly with a bullet or slowly with poison," Tim Daunch says of the prospect of either 1,000 or 430 homes. "You're dead either way."
Daunch, his wife, and their two children fled to Auburn two years ago from the "Stepford mindset" of Twinsburg. "I didn't want to raise my kids in that Toys 'R' Us environment," he says.
The withering critique comes even though Daunch admits he fits the upscale demographic. The consulting director of a Hudson software company, he concedes that carping about the proposed development sounds "somewhat hypocritical. We're newcomers -- we're all part of the problem."
But he likens the three-acre minimum to rules commonly imposed in homeowner and condo associations, where residents must observe a mutual protocol. If Auburn's lot requirement strikes some as elitist -- well, they can always move to Twinsburg.
"When you find something you like, you want to preserve it," Daunch says. "People here didn't get the kind of money they have by being stupid. These are Type A people. We'll come together, marshal our resources, and fight this development."
Twinsburg, along with Aurora, Bainbridge, and Solon, to name a few, are four-letter words to Auburn's suburban refugees. They regard their former towns as victims of unchecked growth and speak of them in tones that suggest they're happy to have gotten out alive.
"I don't want to be run off again, like I was in Solon," says Craig Sirna, who bought 43 acres when he moved his family to Auburn five years ago. Yard signs he made to protest the project -- "Keep 3-Acre Minimum" and "No Cluster Homes In Auburn" -- speckle the lawns of his fellow émigrés.
"[King James] picked the wrong township to hit," he says. "There are too many smart people here to just back down."
But that refined sense of persecution could prove Auburn's undoing, warns Paul Clemens, former chairman of the five-member zoning commission. At the panel's meeting two weeks ago, no one seconded his motion to approve a modified version of the project stipulating a two-acre lot minimum. Though he ultimately joined the others in voting down the King James proposal and resigned from the commission that night, his reservations linger.
Clemens believes large-lot development choked Bainbridge, Solon, and other towns by devouring all their open space. Auburn could avoid the same pitfall by embracing cluster housing, the centerpiece of a concept called "new ruralism" that is gaining converts nationwide.
Despite the county Planning Commission's skewering of the project, he also urges sitting down with King James reps instead of shouting them down. "My concern is, if all you say is no, they can go to a judge and say, 'They won't even talk to us.' What do we have to lose if we negotiate? We don't have to say yes, and we might get some things we want."
Auburn's Board of Trustees will take up the housing proposal this month. Markowitz declined to speculate whether King James would sue if the board deep-sixes the project, though it seems unlikely a developer would walk away from so much prime real estate.
Compromise on behalf of residents appears equally far-fetched. "I'd like to see King James out of here," says Angela Daugherty, whose home sits across the street from the Farmstead site. "You can't trust anything they say."
All of which brings counter-whines from King James. Adrien Elliott, the developer's point person on the project, rebuts concerns about its impact on traffic, schools, the water table, and sewage disposal. Instead, she laments, "There is not one problem with our development, other than people don't want us out there . . . I'm surprised by the almost mob mentality. To be called a 'terrorist developer' -- what is that?"
Actually, it's kind of funny.