Enterprise Park Project in Limbo as OEPA Mulls Decision

HOWLAND, Ohio – Jack Mullen traipses through deep woods at the rear of his 18-acre property on North Road SE in Howland, carefully using a nontoxic spray to mark trees as he moves along.

“You can get lost back here,” he says on a cold winter day, as he paints a bright “X” on a large tree trunk to guide his path home on his return. Within a few days, the mark will evaporate.

Then, Mullen stops just before a small clearing that is punctuated with tall pin oaks. The water that’s settled at the base of these trees has formed a shallow, frozen pool. 

In the spring and summer, these pin-oak flats and vernal ponds are important factors in a thriving ecosystem that he says is under siege.

About 2,000 feet away, The Cafaro Co. of Niles has staked out a 103-acre site east of Mosquito Creek in Howland Township where it wants to spearhead a multi-purpose commercial development, Enterprise Park.

 Mullen and others are concerned that developing this land endangers the entire habitat of vegetation and wildlife in the area that could also affect his property. 

“This is one of the finest urban wetlands in all of Ohio,” he says as he gazes across the clearing. “In the summertime, it’s beautiful out here.”

Executives of The Cafaro Co. say that they have taken every measure to ensure that the most sensitive portions of this land would not be affected by the $367 million development under consideration. 

“We are being extremely sensitive to the environmental concerns of all the stakeholders,” says Anthony Cafaro Jr., co-president of The Cafaro Co. “That’s why we have painstakingly worked with the Ohio EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure we are addressing concerns relative to storm-water management and wetlands.”

The Cafaro Co. plans to construct a mostly medical-related campus that would be anchored by a new hospital owned and operated by Mercy Health. The hospital would serve as a replacement for Mercy’s St. Joseph Hospital on Eastland Avenue in Warren. 

But plans for the hospital remain on hold as Mercy assesses the economic fallout from the closing of General Motors Co. Lordstown plant. 

A letter dated Jan. 21 sent to The Cafaro Co. by Don Kline, president of the Great Lakes Group of Mercy Health, stipulated that the Enterprise Park site presented the best location to build in terms of acreage, highway access and proximity to amenities. 

“The facts that led Mercy Health Youngstown to identify Enterprise Park as the only available site that would meet our established criteria in the targeted geography have not changed,” the letter states. “In any event, our commitment to Enterprise Park has not changed.”

The development would also include medical offices, an assisted living complex and an education building, Cafaro says. “This is not a retail development; but it’s intended to support the retail and restaurants that are here already.”

The land sits just north of The Cafaro Co.’s Eastwood Mall complex, and the Enterprise Park development would have access from state Route 46, Hiram Place Drive and Kenyon Road. When finished, the development could employ up to 2,200 people, excluding the temporary construction jobs needed for the project. 

“We want to create an environment that is unique,” Cafaro says. “There will be nothing like this in the Mahoning Valley.”

The fate of the project is now in the hands of the Ohio EPA and other regulatory agencies, Cafaro says, and there’s no guarantee the project will even move forward. 

“We would not be so presumptuous to assume that we’re going to get approval. It’s not a certainty,” he says. 

Cafaro expects a final decision on the project by the end of the spring or summer. 

Meanwhile, the company has obliged every request from the Ohio EPA and supplied the agency with detailed engineering specifics of the project, according to Cafaro. 

“The sensitive area is Mosquito Creek,” he says. “This project never intended to impact that creek in any way.”

The proposed plan calls for elaborate underground drainage and filtering systems across the parking lots, Cafaro says, while there is no development on Category III wetlands near the creek. Building on land designated as Category II wetlands – in the case of Enterprise Park, about 16 acres – is permitted, but it would also require The Cafaro Co. to purchase credits that would go toward the creation and conservation of wetlands at other locations. There are virtually no restrictions on developing Category I wetlands. 

“We want to do what is required by law and to do it right,” Cafaro says. He says his company has compiled hundreds of pages of documents – archeological studies, environmental studies, feasibility assessments, public-comment responses, endangered-species reviews – that have been submitted to the OEPA. 

“There’s a lot of misinformation floating around,” Cafaro says. “We’ve met with several of the Friends of the Mahoning River group and I’ve tried to take their input and explain to them what we’re doing to mitigate any of the environmental concerns.”

Thus far, those answers haven’t satisfied Mullen and others who oppose the location for the commercial development. 

There exists in this area specific varieties of plant, aquatic and avian life that are either very rare or on the threatened-species list, so preservation of these wetlands is paramount, Mullen says. Any disturbance could wreak havoc to the entire Mosquito Creek watershed, he contends. 

Botanists, biologists, a former director of the Audubon Society, and scientists from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History have all visited Mullen’s property over the years, he continues. All of them have identified rare or threatened species on the land.

“Jim Bissell of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History discovered a rare plant back there that was nearly extinct,” Mullen says. “That was about 10 years ago.”

At that time, the Ohio Department of Transportation was contemplating a project that would expand portions of North Road to four lanes in Mullen’s neighborhood. Public outcry was so intense that more than 1,000 people commented against the project.

Studies by scientists and environmental specialists determined that the ODOT project would cause disruption to the very wetlands that now are at the center of the Enterprise Park debate. Confronted with a white paper compiled by academics from the University of Maryland – plus a letter from then U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, that discouraged the project – ODOT backed off the roadwork. 

“We viewed this as a precedent,” Mullen says. “Now, they’re stomping on the work they did 10 years ago.”

More recently, Mullen stumbled upon what appears to be a blue-spotted salamander – still unconfirmed – in his yard. The amphibian is registered on the most recent endangered-species list of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. 

There are also reports of a clubshell mussel in the watershed, which also is on the federal endangered species list, he says. 

“They did an endangered species study that looked for massasauga rattlesnakes and Indiana bats, but didn’t pay attention to any of the aquatic life,” Mullen says. 

Vernal ponds are important to the wetlands area, he explains, since they provide a natural habitat for salamanders, rare species such as leopard frogs and dragonflies. And vernal ponds are of special interest to environmentalists because they are being destroyed at a rapid rate in the northeastern United States, he adds. 

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Bissell concluded a decade ago that the swampy forested area between state Route 82 and U.S. Route 422 is worthy of protection because of its diverse forest, which helps reduce stream erosion and flooding. 

Further, the Mosquito Creek Watershed is considered a green corridor and a priority conservation area that was identified by the Trumbull County Planning Commission about a decade ago, says Colleen McLean, a member of Friends of the Mahoning River and an associate professor of geological and environmental sciences at Youngstown State University. 

“This is also a migratory-bird stopover,” McLean says. “They’re slowly taking away all of that.”

New development along the watershed could lead to fragmentation of the ecosystem and could threaten biodiversity there, she says.

Moreover, McLean questions why any developer would opt to build on an area that is mostly designated wetlands. “It’s not considered desirable by developers,” she says.

In December, McLean, Mullen and other concerned residents attended a public hearing at Howland High School to voice their opposition to the development site. All submitted public comments to the OEPA, which is evaluating the project. 

On April 4, the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments’ Citizens Advisory Board voted unanimously to oppose the project’s location.

McLean says that initially Howland Township had considered the area for a public park, but the landowners sold to Cafaro. She says an alternative would be for The Cafaro Co. to donate the property to a conservatory to preserve this habitat instead of destroying it through new development. 

That’s not an option for Cafaro, who emphasizes that this development would serve as an economic catalyst for the region and advance the quality of health care in the Mahoning Valley. 

“This is not being done in a haphazard way,” Cafaro says, “but with the strict oversight and guidance of the regulatory agencies.”

McLean emphasizes that opposition to this project is in no way opposition to economic development, and notes there are ample other options to build elsewhere. “I’m pro-development,” she says. This development is in the wrong place.”

Pictured:Any disturbance of the wetlands could wreak havoc on the Mosquito Creek watershed, Jack Mullen says.

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