MERRIMAN VALLEY MASTER PLAN
A Master Planning process for the southern end of the Cuyahoga Valley, known locally as the Merriman Valley, started in April 2021 and a final report is due to be completed and voted on by Akron and Cuyahoga Falls City councils at the end of 2022 or early 2023. The cities of Akron and Cuyahoga Falls selected the Chicago-based firm, Farr Associates, to lead the planning process. According to city documents, the goal of the process is to "guide future land use and development activities" in the planning area. Here is Preserve the Valley's opinion of the draft plan and issues that remain to be resolved:
CHANGE REQUIRES EFFORT!
Preserve the Valley's Opinion on Draft Plan
Let us start by saying that we believe this collaboration between Cuyahoga Falls and the City of Akron represents a historic opportunity to define the future of the Merriman Valley while setting a precedent for the Cuyahoga Valley as a whole. Further, decisions made about this area have the potential to impact the entire Northeast Ohio region.
The “Valley” is an interconnected group of environmental, cultural, heritage, and recreational assets that draws upwards of three million visitors generating $80 million in economic activity per year. We must make prudent decisions when considering redevelopment and new development in this area as they will affect our ability to attract and retain the population that is critical to the viability of our region.
PTV has identified several issues critical to the future of the Valley. These include:
- Conservation of citizen-owned land
- Sustainable development
- Tax incentives
- Community connectivity
- Recreational safety
- Government transparency and accessibility to pubic process
- Stormwater management
Rather than giving a blanket statement about our feelings on the Master Plan as a whole, we would like to instead dive deeper into each of these issues and how they may or may not have been addressed in the Master Plan. We encourage our members to review this information and then take a few moments to make your voices heard on both PTV’s social media networks and website as well as with key members of the government in both Akron and Cuyahoga Falls:
We value your engagement during this process and are hopeful that the identification of the key issues will allow you to find an area of interest and action. Let us know if you have additional thoughts or questions via email - firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Key Issues
1. Conservation of citizen-owned land
Preserve the Valley believes that citizen-owned land in the Merriman Valley should be conserved. The key parcel currently in question is Theiss Woods, a 45-acre triangle of land on Theiss Road owned by the City of Akron. It sits adjacent to Hampton Hills Mountain Bike Area in Summit Metro Parks and above Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It contains wooded terrain, hills, a natural spring, streams, and wetlands.
In August 2020, Akron placed the Theiss property on the market for residential development with an asking price of $361,520 -- a price well below market value, with a 15-year CRA tax abatement for future homeowners. Five proposals from developers called for the clearing of up to 70% of the site to build 65 -110 upscale single-family homes offered at prices up to $420K. A sixth proposal was submitted by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy to purchase the land for conservation at the city’s asking price.
In response to intense public pressure and calls for conservation, the city issued a new request for proposals (RFP) in December 2020 to allow conservation groups to submit proposals. The asking price was increased to $550,000 for conservation groups.
Western Reserve Land Conservancy again submitted a conservation proposal in March 2021, in which they also estimated the additional annual costs that the city of Akron would face if the land were to be developed instead of conserved. These included an additional $37,000 to $62,000 annually in water and sewer service (depending on the number of units built) and $49,000 annually for costs related to flooding and stormwater capture and treatment that the existing green space currently absorbs.
The conservation of Theiss woods is both economically and environmentally wise.
In addition to the 20,000 citizens who have signed a petition to save Theiss Woods, the conservation of the property is endorsed by:
- National Park Conservation Association
- Akron's League of Women Voters Editorial
- The Akron Garden Club
- Akron Beacon Journal Editorial Board
- Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund
- Portage Trail Group Sierra Club
- The Greater Akron Audubon Society
- Yellow Creek Foundation
- The Conservancy of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park
- Summit County Progressive Democrats
- TASC Force (Trail Advocates for Summit County)
During the December 15th Master Plan meeting, City of Akron Planning Director Jason Segedy stated that Mayor Horigan has not yet determined the fate of Theiss Woods. However, the desire of the citizens has been made clear: 100% conservation of citizen-owned land.
2. Sustainable development
The December 15th presentation gave the following mission statement for the Master Plan: Let’s make this special place a global model of land conservation and sustainable development by piloting Innovations in planning and regulation.
City development and zoning codes define a minimum standard the developer must meet before a project is approved. This master planning process provides the citizens with the best opportunity to raise the minimum standards set in the Cuyahoga Falls and City of Akron development codes. We need your awareness and engagement to ensure that changes to the city codes are codified and then adopted by each City Council.
Preserve the Valley is aligned with Farr Associates’ recommendation for the following development concepts:
- Design new and existing buildings to a higher standard: All-electric, highly energy-efficient, renewably powered
- Provide a public open space within walking distance of the entire neighborhood: Each community needs a heart
- Let stormwater infiltrate naturally: Don’t hide water, celebrate where it falls
- Maintain existing tree canopies, promote native species: Canopy preservation standards, use natives wherever possible
- Respect Night Sky and life by minimizing light pollution: Layer light, and have it be beautiful from every angle
3. Tax incentives
Tax incentives are often used to encourage developers to invest in areas that “but for” the incentive a project would not be considered. This results in a tricky calculus . . . when, where, and how much incentive is required?
Preserve the Valley is against the use of abatements to incentivize the development of green space in the Merriman Valley. Public comments during the master planning process stated that incentives for development should be considered only after regulations for sustainable development have been codified and adopted.
We would like to see the City of Akron remove the CRA (Community Reinvestment Area) abatement in the Merriman Valley for new development. These abatements are unnecessary due to the success of the Merriman Valley real estate market, where the housing stock has a value of roughly double the Akron average. When used in this market, the abatement program is effectively asking less affluent Akronites to subsidize a developer and purchasers of high-end real estate. This is inequitable and inconsistent with one of the city’s goals of bridging disparities in investments across Akron’s neighborhoods.
In the case of the recent Riverwoods development, the developer will receive $11.75 million dollars in tax relief. In addition to the lost tax revenue to the City of Akron, the Woodridge School District will need to cover the cost of education for students that reside in the development for fifteen years without property tax revenue.
Instead of supporting new development, PTV believes that both cities should provide tax incentives for sustainable REDEVELOPMENT projects. Because the majority of these opportunities in the Merriman Valley will be commercial projects, this means that developers will need to interrupt the current commercial activity in order to meet new sustainable development requirements. Developers, especially first movers, should be provided incentives to ensure that these higher-risk projects are undertaken. The future of the Merriman Valley will in part depend upon the redevelopment of commercial properties.
4. Community Connectivity
The Merriman Valley has long suffered from deferred decisions. Much of the land was once part of Northampton Township and was gradually annexed to the city of Akron during the 1980s. By 1986 whatever land remained in the Township was merged with the city of Cuyahoga Falls. At the time both cities coveted the land zoned for commercial & industrial use, which resulted in a confusing puzzle of city boundaries and a jumbled array of industrial, commercial, and residential zoning.
This mix creates a jumble of properties that exist as islands as opposed to walkable and recreationally friendly neighborhoods. Automobile transit is heavily favored over a pedestrian and public transport options.
An example of this is obvious along Portage Trail Extension. Well-traveled paths in the grass along the side of the busy roadway provide a visual queue to the need for sidewalks to connect the Waterford and Timbertop developments, completed in 1985 on parcels designated as a City of Akron land, to the Merriman Valley recreation and commercial areas to the west as well as the newly developed Portage Crossing shopping area to the east.
And in Cuyahoga Falls, the recently developed single-family and multi-family units on the former Sycamore golf course also suffer from community disconnection. Despite their proximity to the commercial area of Merriman Valley, residents must rely on automobiles as transit to connect to any part of the community.
During a public discussion about the new Riverwoods development, Preserve the Valley worked to create awareness for community connectivity issues and advocated for the development of public safety and community connectivity amenities like sidewalks, hiking trails, and bridge access. While these features were included in the discussion and initial planning documents associated with the project, we believe that unfortunately they are not funded at this time.
Preserve the Valley echoes one of Farr Associates’ goals for accessibility throughout the Valley, which should include safe options for pedestrian traffic. We believe that it is necessary for any new development and/or redevelopment project to include plans and funding for connectivity to the remainder of the community. We are also in support of Farr Associates’ recommendation to create a public open space within walking distance of the entire neighborhood.
5. Recreational Safety
The city of Cuyahoga Falls has embraced the concept of being a gateway community to the cultural, heritage, environmental, and recreational assets of the entire Cuyahoga Valley. Combined, these assets attract in excess of 2.8 million visitors and generate more than $80 million in economic activity in the region. These visitors are increasingly attracted to the Valley for recreational activities like hiking, running, cycling, mountain biking, paddling, and skiing.
While hiking, mountain biking, paddling, and skiing visitors are for the most part protected by the physical boundaries that surround those activities, runners, and cyclists that traverse the twenty-mile loop of Akron-Peninsula, Portage Trail Extension, Riverview Road and Main Street are not as lucky. They must share their course with an increased volume of cars traveling at various rates of speed, and drivers prone to distraction as they navigate traffic entering and existing commercial plazas and apartment complexes, particularly on Riverview Road at the southern end of the Valley.
The sections of Riverview and Akron-Peninsula roads within Cuyahoga Falls jurisdiction further confuse the issue by raising the speed limit from 35 MPH to 45 MPH. Many drivers in the area realize that Akron and Cuyahoga Falls police presence in the Valley is inconsistent, and have been known to drive in excess of the posted limits until reaching areas on the northern end where consistent enforcement has altered driving behavior.
During the master planning discussions, the Valley was referred to as the central highway between Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, and northern suburbs. A perceived highway is not conducive to recreational safety.
Preserve the Valley advocates for Cuyahoga Falls to reduce posted speed limits to 35 MPH on Riverview and Akron-Peninsula roads with increased enforcement of both speed limits and right of ways for runners & cyclists. We are also in favor of bike and pedestrian-friendly development and redevelopment.
6. Government transparency and accessibility to public process
The collaboration of Akron and Cuyahoga Falls on behalf of the Master Planning process marks a significant turning point for the Merriman Valley, and a major step in repairing the haphazard development and uncoordinated planning decisions that have plagued the area for decades. PTV celebrates not only this collaboration but also the selection of Farr Associates, a nationally recognized expert in urban planning and design, to facilitate the process.
However, public access to information and the ability for input - which was claimed to be an important part of the process - was inconsistent. We recognize that the pandemic caused logistical uncertainties with respect to live events. However, starting and ending the process with heavily scripted and moderated Zoom calls, thus limiting the level of public interaction, was disappointing to say the least. In-person events, in the form of public open studio sessions and charettes at Todaro’s Party Center, did offer opportunities for stakeholders to engage in meaningful discussions with city officials and the Farr team. However, they also exhibited faults: the open studio sessions were held midday, making them fairly inaccessible for the majority of the working population, and the evening charettes, while live-streamed, left no ability for engagement to those joining virtually. In addition, renters - who comprise approximately 70% of the Valley population - were not adequately engaged throughout the process.
The city of Cuyahoga Falls deserves recognition for hosting the Merriman Valley Master Plan Listening Tour at the Natatorium on October 5th. Moderated by the Cuyahoga Falls city council, this event fostered direct dialog between stakeholders and members of the development and planning staff in both Akron and Cuyahoga Falls. PTV considered this event to be the most engaging out of all of the public sessions and encourages both cities to consider scheduling similar events prior to the review of the master plan recommendations by city council members.
7. Stormwater Management
Preserve the Valley believes that the most important issue in the Valley planning is the protection of its most vital asset: the Cuyahoga River.
Collectively, Northeast Ohio has focused significant efforts toward cleaning the Cuyahoga River and protecting the watershed that connects many communities - Akron and Cuyahoga Falls included - to the river. It has been 53 years since the Cuyahoga River last caught fire, and to borrow the tagline of West Creek Conservancy’s Xtinguish Celebration marking the 50 year anniversary of the last fire on the Cuyahoga: it is time to extinguish the past and ignite the future.
The environmental and economic future of the Cuyahoga River is controlled by the Cuyahoga River Watershed. According to the United States EPA, a watershed or drainage basin is defined as an area of land in which all of the water that falls onto its surfaces (e.g., precipitation) is transported from higher elevations to lower elevations and ultimately drains to a common outflow point, such as an ocean, lake, stream, or river. Ridges, mountains, and hills (higher elevation features) define the boundaries of watersheds and are known as the drainage divides. All larger watersheds are composed of smaller sub-watersheds. A healthy watershed is vital to the ecosystem it serves and provides many benefits, such as habitat and biodiversity maintenance and water quality, erosion, sedimentation, and flood control.
The Cuyahoga River Watershed is a roughly U-shaped tributary of Lake Erie starting in Geauga County and following the Cuyahoga River through Akron and back north to its outflow at the Port of Cleveland. This watershed is divided into 26 sub-watersheds formed by the topographical contours of Lake, Geauga, Portage, Summit, Stark, Medina, and Cuyahoga counties. The land area within the watershed is heavily developed with both residential and commercial projects. The resulting accumulation of impermeable surfaces (rooftops, roads, parking lots, etc.) creates significant stormwater runoff challenges for both the environment and manmade infrastructure.
Stormwater runoff can cause many environmental problems, including:
Erosion of stream banks, causing damage to aquatic habitats
Carrying excess nutrients from fertilizers, pet waste and other sources into rivers and streams, fueling the growth of algae blooms that create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life
Pushing excess sediment into rivers and streams, blocking sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, and suffocating shellfish
Forcing pesticides, leaking fuel or motor oil, and other chemical contaminants into rivers and streams, harming the health of humans and wildlife
The largest civil engineering project in City of Akron history is the direct result of stormwater management challenges.
The City of Akron’s Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) project was mandated by the Federal government by Consent Decree in 1987. According to the website for Akron Waterways Renewed, the estimated cost for the 26 major projects under the Consent Decree has increased almost 28%, from $870 million in 2011 to an estimated $1.2 billion now. Sewer costs have already skyrocketed 269% to pay these costs. The city knows this is a heavy burden for ratepayers. The AWR website calls out the key benefits of the spending as clean waterways, stating our rivers and canal will be restored to a level not seen in six generations.
In addition to the environmental problems stormwater runoff creates, physical infrastructure within the Cuyahoga Valley is constantly being affected by flooding and erosion. Damage in this realm is both detrimental and costly: Yellow Creek Road and Akron-Peninsula Road, both closed recently for extended periods of time following stormwater damage, required reengineering, and construction projects totaling over $1.8 million dollars collectively prior to reopening.
Preserve the Valley believes that the master plan must consider recommendations for effective stormwater management within the Merriman Valley, an area prone to erosion damage due to the hilly and ravine-laden terrain. In our opinion, the most effective solution for stormwater management within Summit County is outlined in the Summit County Engineers surface water management district (SWMD) program, which was created in 2017 in an effort to aid local communities in addressing stormwater problems. The program is an opt-in stormwater improvement program that functions as a utility. Participation in the program is optional for all cities, villages, and townships in Summit County. Residential properties are charged one Equivalent Rate Unit or “ERU”. The current rate for one ERU is $4.00 per month, which is billed annually. Properties with a Homestead Exemption are granted a 25% reduction in fees, for a cost of $3.00 per month. Commercial properties are charged one ERU per 3,000 square feet of impervious surface.
Preserve the Valley encourages you to learn more about the Summit County stormwater management district. We believe Cuyahoga Falls and the City of Akron opting-in to the program will lead to runoff solutions that will protect the $1 billion investment in clean water and mitigate further erosion damage caused by stormwater runoff from residential and commercial development.
Master Plan area defined by City of Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, 2021