Hiram – After lengthy delays since mid-November, Portage County Commissioners finally held hearings to consider the annexation of approximately139 acres from Hiram Township to Hiram Village last week. The proposed annexation would pave the way for private developers to build retirement housing on the parcel of land originally set aside for Hiram College expansion.

Hiram College and Village Builders of Hiram originally petitioned to annex land adjacent to the village’s north border, for phased construction of approximately 200 residential units for retirees on 90 acres north of the Hiram College campus. The college expects to set aside 50 acres in part of the Silver Creek Watershed as a conservation area.

A surprise awaited those attending Monday’s opening session, according to various reliable  sources. Ed Wurm, a partner with Mike Maschek Sr. in Village Builders of Hiram Inc., announced their firm is withdrawing as developer of the construction project. The decision reportedly is due to economic issues unrelated to the long and contentious annexation battle.

Wurm said the 90 acres Hiram Builders purchased from Hiram College for development would revert back to the college, as stipulated in the purchase agreement. Hiram College President Tom Chema indicated that Village Builder’s pullout will not impede the project’s progress, saying he expects no difficulty in finding another builder for the 55-and-older independent and assisted living development.
Following Monday’s testimony, ensuing hearings were postponed for two days, due to Commissioner Maureen Frederick’s battle with the flu. Consequently, conflicts arose in scheduling expert witnesses and testifying attorneys. So, although hearings resumed on Thursday, further hearings now have been extended nine additional days, through March 18. Commissioners will deliver a decision on the annexation request within 30 days after overall hearings conclude.

Last November, two of three commissioners — Chuck Keiper and Chris Smeiles — cited potential conflicts of interest for being unable to participate in the hearings. Consequently, hearings were postponed until late January, when newly-elected Commissioner Tommie Jo Marsilio would be in office and could preside over the hearings with Frederick (Commissioner Chris Smiles continued to recuse himself.) A majority of the three commissioners is needed for any vote.

Marsilio – a Republican –  replaces Democrat Keiper, who served on the board since 1993. Democrat Maureen Frederick has been a commissioner since 2003. Democrat Smeiles is the senior commissioner, having taken office in 1989.

The hearings were reset for January 24-26 at the Portage County Administration Building in Ravenna, with three sides represented:  the petitioners for the annexation, the village and the township.

But they were cancelled January 25 and 26 after a full day of testimony January 24, due to Frederick’s illness. They resumed January 27 with testimony from Hiram Mayor Louis Bertrand, Police Chief Mark Lombardi and Hiram Village Administrator Robert Wood.

Hiram Township — led by Township Trustee Kathleen Schulda —  along with an active group of township residents, have objected to the annexation, fearing it will encourage urban sprawl, detract from the rural character of the community, and exclude some residents from the rest of the township. About 25 people in Monday’s audience demonstrated their opposition to annexation by wearing red T-shirts and hats. Opposition proponents have organized their efforts on a dedicated website, www.hiramannex.com .

Alfred E. Schrader, attorney for the township, noted that the annexation would increase the village’s land size by about 20 percent and the number of voting-age residents by nearly 50 percent.
Chema said the planned development would help the college by providing a demographic pool to attend programs, events and classes. In turn, the college would attract those wanting to live near a college campus. The new residents would enhance economic development for the village, as well, due to collection of income taxes, property taxes and a broader base of water customers driving down high rates. The school district would also benefit from increased property taxes.

Referring to an engineering report, attorney Schrader contended that the proposed development would put undue strain on village water and sewer facilities, forcing the village to spend higher sums for sewer and water improvement for the annexation. Bertrand disagreed, saying the project is to be built incrementally over 20 years and village infrastructure is adequate for that growth.

Lombardi testified that police departments in other areas with similar retirement communities experience a higher incidence of calls about fraud against seniors, suspicious vehicles and lost persons. But Lombardi felt confident that current manpower could provide necessary police services, as it has been able to handle increased (and more serious) calls as the result of Hiram College adding 400 students to enrollment in recent years.

Village Administrator Wood assured that village and ODOT road crews (not the township) maintain and plow state routes through the village, unaffected by the fact that village and township property lines as a result of annexation would get jumbled. Both the village and ODOT plow and salt the roads, while ODOT does repaving and pothole repairs.

Opposition leaders are not ready to back down on the annexation fight, having already attempted imposing eminent domain to retain the acreage in the township. Regardless of the commissioners’ ultimate decision, this case may wind up in court.
At presstime, testimony regarding feasibility studies for the proposed annexation was to be the focus of a hearing scheduled for February 2 at the Portage County Administration Building.