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May
29
2024
Yellow Springs School Board

Mills Lawn as it appeared in 2021. (Photo by Bryan Cady)

School board discusses Mills Lawn greenspace preservation

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At the regular school board meeting Thursday, March 14, local advocacy group Citizens to Preserve Mills Lawn Greenspace brought forward a potential plan to place a conservation easement on a portion of land on which Mills Lawn Elementary School is located.

An easement would preserve the land as greenspace, restricting the way it can be used in perpetuity by barring it from development.

Group member Laura Curliss gave the presentation before the school board, stating that the group’s goal was the “permanent preservation [of greenspace at Mills Lawn] for the children’s education and for the quality of life of the entire community.”

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Though the greenspace group included a resolution document in its presentation materials, which would authorize the group to continue to formulate the plan and begin developing a project agreement, and requested that the board approve the resolution, the board did not vote on the resolution.

Instead, after hearing the presentation and comments from several community members and district administrators — in which some supported the potential plan and others questioned its necessity and cited potential legal hurdles — the board agreed that the group did not require a resolution to continue researching a potential plan. At the same time, the board acknowledged the need to further consult the district’s legal counsel and agreed to continue discussion of a potential greenspace preservation plan at its next regular meeting in April.

Greenspace discussion timeline

According to past News reporting, the formation of Citizens to Preserve Mills Lawn Greenspace began in 2020. Those who would become members of the greenspace preservation group learned that year that about five undeveloped acres of Mills Lawn’s nine-acre campus — an area of lawn bordered by Phillips, Limestone and Elm streets — were zoned “high-density residential,” meaning that sale of the land would open up the possibility for a housing development on the site.

In letters to the News, in public presentations and on their website, the group has asserted that the land has been enjoyed for decades by both students and community members as a kind of public park, with the school’s playgrounds and greenspace open to local residents outside of school hours. The group has also pointed to the donation of the land to the school district by Antioch College in 1949, citing a letter from the college to district leaders, stating that the gift was being made with a “mutual understanding” between the two entities that the property would be “utilized for any non-commercial purposes that will promote the welfare of the community generally.” The group’s position thus far has been that both the intended use for the land laid out in the transfer and its common use by the community should preclude development.

The burgeoning group petitioned Village Council, which was engaged in discussion of the village’s Comprehensive Land-Use Plan in 2020, to consider the Mills Lawn greenspace in its discussions. Council declined to weigh in at the time, citing the school district’s ownership of the land as superseding their own authority on the matter.

In 2021, YS Schools began working with the YS Development Corporation to explore the possible sale of the nine-acre Mills Lawn campus pending the hoped-for passage of a facilities levy that would, if passed, have resulted in a new, K–12 school building on East Enon Road, leaving Mills Lawn vacant. The possible passage of the levy created a sense of urgency within the greenspace preservation group, which later petitioned Village Council to support conversations around preserving the greenspace at Mills Lawn; Council passed a resolution in October 2021, affirming its “commitment to preserving greenspace at the current Mills Lawn School campus.”

Also in October 2021, the YS Development Corporation and YS Schools put their exploration of the potential sale of the Mills Lawn land on hold, citing the desire to wait until the community voted on the facilities levy; ultimately, voters did not pass the November 2021 levy.

In February 2022, the greenspace preservation group gave a presentation before the school board, presenting the possibility of a conservation easement on the undeveloped portion of the Mills Lawn greenspace. The easement would have been aided by grant funds from the state’s capital budget program and the Clean Ohio program. At the time, the school district was entering again into conversations around school facilities upgrades following the failure of the November 2021 facilities levy.

Noting both the need to focus on a new facilities plan and levy, as well as the difficulty of meeting a March deadline for one of the proposed grants, the board opted to table the greenspace discussion until the future.

Easement possibilities discussed

Curliss’ presentation on behalf of Citizens to Preserve Mills Lawn Greenspace outlined a potential plan to place a conservation easement on the Mills Lawn land, which would restrict its use to that of a “public greenspace — including for exclusive school use during school hours,” according to presentation documents. In general, Curliss said, this would mean that no permanent structures could be built on the land demarcated by the conservation easement, though she added that “certain park-like amenities, such as a stage — temporary structures — are certainly consistent with a conservation easement.”

The boundaries of such an easement would need to be determined by the school board, Curliss said, and existing structures, including sidewalks and the tennis courts, would be “carved out” of an easement and not subject to the same restrictions.

According to the presentation, another agency, such as a land trust, would need to hold the conservation easement, but the school district would retain the “fee simple” — a legal term that equates to ownership — on the conserved land. Curliss added that an easement could be accomplished either by donating the easement rights to a holding agency, or by selling the easement to a holding agency for the fair market value of the land; selling the easement would not mean transferring the ownership of the land, she said.

As in 2022, when the greenspace group originally made its pitch for a conservation easement to the school board, Curliss cited a Clean Ohio grant that could help the district sell a conservation easement for the Mills Lawn land. If the grant, for which Curliss said the district is eligible, were pursued, Clean Ohio could contribute 75% of the land’s fair market value to district coffers, with the district essentially relinquishing the remaining 25% of the value as an “in-kind” donation.

“As with most things in life, where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Curliss said. “If this school board wants to preserve the greenspace forever for the children, and as an open space for the larger community, there is a way to do it.”

Following the presentation, Superintendent Terri Holden questioned whether the district would have the “statutory authority” to move ahead with such an easement. Curliss said an easement would not require a “disposal of property,” noting that the district donated an easement on its sidewalks to the Village in 2021.

Outside of potential legal concerns, Holden also said she worried that placing an easement on the land could create barriers to future educational uses on the land.

“If there’s any bit of concrete, [it would be] an easement violation,” Holden said. “If we want to put a greenhouse, I might need to have a concrete slab for that, so I do not want to tie the hands of my principal, my teachers, the children. … I feel like, with an easement, our hands are tied.”

Holden and board members also noted several times during the meeting that the district had received a legal opinion about a conservation easement from its legal counsel firm, Bricker & Graydon, though they did not elaborate on the nature of that advice.

Echoing comments from some community members who spoke later during the meeting, board member Dorothée Bouquet pointed out that, since the passage of a facilities levy in November 2023 includes the renovation of Mills Lawn, the land on its campus will likely not be used for any noneducational purpose in the foreseeable future.

“We are investing $14 million into Mills Lawn, and I think that’s a pretty big commitment that nobody wants to do any commercial or residential development,” Bouquet said.

Bouquet went on to ask if the board might consider an alternative route to making clear the district’s commitment not to develop the Mills Lawn land, without being “so restrictive” via a conservation easement, later noting the possibility of rezoning the land.

Curliss said in response that land zoning “can be undone” by Village government, and added that it’s possible to determine a “term of years” for an easement, after which time it would expire.

“Forever’s a long time,” Curliss acknowledged, adding that the land has been greenspace since it was transferred to the school district in 1949, and could remain so for decades without an easement, depending on the “goodwill of the people.”

Board member Amy Bailey agreed with Bouquet’s reservations, while board member Amy Magnus and Board President Judith Hempfling noted their openness to continuing to explore the possibilities of a conservation easement. All board members agreed that they should continue to consult with the district’s legal counsel on the possibilities and potential pitfalls of an easement.

The board also confirmed that further discussion on the matter will be added to the agenda of the board’s next regular meeting Thursday, April 11; Curliss said the greenspace group would continue research and make further recommendations to the board at that time.

“We need to learn more,” Board Vice President Rebecca Potter said, “but we all are on the same page of using Mills Lawn’s greenspace and conserving it in some form that can still allow for use by the schools, students and the community.”

To view the March 14 meeting in full, go to youtube.com/@yellowspringsschoolsboe; to view agenda documents, go to bit.ly/YSSchoolBoardDocs.

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