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Millls Lawn Elementary in late September. (Drone photo by Bryan Cady)

YSDC puts Mills Lawn discussion on hold

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The Yellow Springs Development Corporation, or YSDC, has deferred its plans “to help shape the future” of the Mills Lawn Elementary School property until after the November election, when voters decide the fate of a proposed levy to build a K–12 facility at the current location of the middle/high school campus.

If the levy passes, the district plans to vacate the nearly nine-acre Mills Lawn site at the center of town, putting in question the property’s subsequent use. The YSDC had agreed last month to accept an invitation from the school board to facilitate an exploration of possible outcomes for the site. The effort, which is to include gathering community ideas and opinions, is being paid for by a grant through the Yellow Springs Community Foundation of an unspecified amount from anonymous donations.

Responding to negative perceptions in the community about the YSDC’s intentions and its role in the project, fueled by the absence of public conversations about the partnership by either the school board or YSDC and unease about the unspecified interests of an unnamed donor, the YSDC on Tuesday, Oct. 5, voted 7–2, with two members absent, to postpone taking further action regarding the property. The vote occurred during the group’s regular monthly meeting, conducted online through the Zoom video-conference app.

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Lisa Kreeger, one of two Village Council liaisons to the economic development group as well as its vice-president, proposed the move to put the group’s involvement on hold, an action she described as “unfortunate,” but necessary.

“This particular project has received a lot of very negative traffic on social media and at Council meetings,” YSDC President Lisa Abel agreed.

Kreeger characterized some of the online posts as “pretty toxic.”

Particularly egregious for Kreeger have been accusations that members of the YSDC are “trying to throw the [levy] vote … so we can develop the Mills Lawn property.” School board and YSDC members have said that the group does not qualify to develop the site.

Ohio Revised Code lists intricate rules for the sale of school-owned property, including the stipulation that the property must first be offered for sale or lease to high performing start-up community schools, college-prep boarding schools and STEM or STEAM schools within the district, or community schools planning to move into the district. If no qualifying school expresses interest within state-set time limits, then the sale goes to auction when the value exceeds $10,000. An auction is not required if the value is $10,000 or less; if the buyer is a municipal entity; or if the property is being disposed of as part of a trade or exchange.

Kreeger is also offended, she said, by descriptions of the Community Foundation grant as “dark money.”

After the YSDC agreed to take on what it calls the “Mills Lawn Exploration Project,” Abel explained to the News that the project funding, which would go toward hiring a project manager and consulting firm and pay related attorney fees and other expenses, was being provided in the form of a “pass-through” grant. She said a donor had approached the Community Foundation about financing a community visioning for the Mills Lawn site.

“The Foundation does not run projects like this and informed the donor that the funds could be directed to a nonprofit organization [such as the YSDC] that could run this type of project,” Abel wrote in an email last month.

However, the anonymous nature of the donation was immediately problematic for some community members, who expressed distrust in any process without knowing the financial source.

Later, Abel wrote a letter to the editor referring to more than one donor. School board and YSDC members have continued, however, to speak of a single donor. When asked to clarify, Abel told the News that she had since been informed by Community Foundation Executive Director Jeannamarie Cox that “there were multiple donors to the Mills Lawn Exploration Project.”

Cox, who also serves on the YSDC as an ex-officio member, confirmed this week that the grant “was funded through multiple donations earmarked for convening a community conversation.” She did not reply to a question about the number of donations received, or whether an individual initiated the effort.

She said that a specific fund has not been set up to accept donations for the project, but anyone wishing to give to this or any other project can simply include a note with their donation.

“Any donor may make a recommendation for use of funds, yet the decision on how funds are accepted and granted is that of the Foundation’s,” she added.

YSDC members expressed dismay during last week’s meeting that their motives have been questioned. Kreeger said her understanding of the YSDC’s role in the project is as “the convener of a collaborative community effort.”

“We’re not the cartoonish villains we’ve been made out to be,” agreed Alex Bieri, who serves on the YSDC as the mayor of Clifton.

Kreeger also expressed regret that an initial public meeting had already been announced “before all YSDC members knew about it.” That event, a walk around the site originally planned for this weekend, was canceled after the YSDC’s action last week.

Steve Conn, one of two school board representatives to the development group, said he was “confused by the order of events” that had occurred since last month.

At that time, the YSDC agreed to facilitate the project, accept the Community Foundation grant and form a subcommittee to pursue the project.

The subcommittee apparently moved faster than other YSDC members anticipated.

According to Abel, the committee is comprised of three YSDC voting members, herself, Bieri and Sara Courtright, who represents the Chamber of Commerce; two YSDC ex-officio members, Cox and YS Schools Superintendent Terri Holden; and community member Michael Slaughter, who is also active with the Preserve Mills Lawn Greenspace group.

Bieri said the committee members thought they were following the larger group’s expectations. They hired community member Len Kramer as project manager, and per the committee’s instructions, Kramer “was under the impression that he was given the go-ahead to pursue this before the vote, and that time was of the essence,” Bieri said. Kramer also contracted with a consulting firm — the Cleveland-based Urban Design Collaboration — to help facilitate community engagement.

“The idea was to inform the vote,” Bieri said.

Abel noted that the committee had already met with the consultant as well, and his comment after learning more about the local situation was, “You guys have a big trust issue in your community.”
Conn said that a desire to build trust was part of the reason the school board had approached the YSDC concerning the Mills Lawn property.

“We want to work with this organization to have the most open and engaged process we can,” he said.

“It’s an if/then proposition. If the levy doesn’t pass, then the conversation changes. The fact that has not gotten though to certain people baffles me.”

Consequently, “it makes better sense to do this when we know what the outcome of the levy is,” he added.

Corrie Van Ausdal, who is one of two representatives of Miami Township, said she had a different perspective, prompted by conversations with residents while canvassing on behalf of the school levy the Saturday before.

She said she found people were “uncomfortable making a levy vote until there is a decision and plan in place for Mills Lawn.”

“So, in my mind, that’s the only way” to counter the misinformation and “conspiracy theory stuff going on,” Van Ausdal said.

While YSDC members seemed sympathetic to her argument, most agreed that the Exploration Project had become a distraction and wasn’t serving the desired purpose.

“I think it’s wise to pause these activities,” Kevin Stokes, the second Village Council representative wrote in a text to Abel, after he had to leave the meeting early for another commitment.

Van Ausdal wasn’t swayed. “I don’t think we should back down,” she said. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

She voted no on the deferral, as did Steve McQueen, the second school board representative. Voting in favor were Abel, Bieri, Conn, Courtright, Kreeger, Miami Township Trustee Don Hollister and Antioch College representative Hannah Montgomery. In addition to Stokes, Shelly Blackman, an at-large community representative was also absent for the vote.

In other YSCD business, Oct. 5:
• While the group changed its bylaws earlier this year to include the mayor of Clifton, or their designee, as a voting member, and accepted Mayor Alex Bieri into the group, a procedural question arose recently over the legality of Bieri serving without the Village of Clifton having designated the YSDC as its official community development corporation. Clifton has since made it official, and the YSDC re-elected Bieri as a member on Oct. 5.

Whether Clifton’s location partly in Clark County is an issue has not yet been determined, Abel said.

In the meantime, the group revoted on every motion — presented in a group — for which Bieri previously cast a vote.

“That seems fairly tedious,” Bieri said. “I could just recuse myself.”

Abel said that she thought it was important to follow procedures accurately, and Village Manager Josué Salmerón, an ex-officio member, agreed.

Salmerón pointed to a conflict on Village Council that led to the censure of Council member Laura Curliss, who has raised questions about the organization and voting structure of the YSDC, “particularly with regards to Mills Lawn and [the property’s] greenspace.”

“I believe this is necessary to ensure all of our bases are covered,” Stokes concluded.

“Has the aforementioned Council member offered to pick up the legal bills for all these shenanigans,” Steve Conn queried about Curliss.

• Piper Fernway, who has been contracted to draft a Climate Action and Sustainability Plan for Yellow Springs; Michele Burns, executive director of Tecumseh Land Trust; and Megan Bachman, assistant director of Agraria Center for Regenerative Practice, gave a joint presentation on Local Foods as an Economic Development Strategy. The YSDC took no action, but its members are interested in exploring agriculturally-based economic development opportunities in the Village and Township.

Fernway also provided a separate presentation about plans she is spearheading for the Clifton Crafthouse Co-op, a multi-use, community-owned taproom and gathering space that includes artist housing and a commercial kitchen in a historic building in Clifton. She asked the YSDC to become an organizational partner in the enterprise. Expressing excitement about the project, the group took no action, but Abel said they will consider the invitation.

• The group voted 6-3 to continue meeting via Zoom until the COVID case levels in Greene County fall below 100 per 100,000 residents. Most recent information from the Ohio Department of Health listed the county at 514.4 cases per 100,000. Voting to meet in person were Bieri, Hollister and Van Ausdal. Voting to continue online were Abel, Conn, Courtright, Kreeger, McQueen and Montgomery.

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