Northwest News

Councilman joins commission in opposing wetlands swap


The decision to oppose a proposed wetlands swap in the Sawmill Road area was an easy one, Columbus City Councilman Zachary M. Klein said last week, even though choosing between economic developing and environmental protection is usually pretty difficult.

"This is a unique piece of land and we needed to take a stance that this is not going to be good for that particular section of Columbus and Franklin County in general," Klein said.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials have a pending sales agreement with a developer for a portion of the 17.85-acre Sawmill Wildlife Education Center near the intersection of Sawmill and East Dublin-Granville roads.

The developer wants to build medical offices on the land and in exchange would provide ODNR 43 acres along the west bank of the Olentangy River just south of Delaware County.

The developer would create wetlands on that site, which is near Highbanks Metro Park.

Klein took his stance against the concept in a Dec. 28 letter to ODNR Director James Zehringer after hearing from a number of neighboring residents, environmental organizations and newly formed groups fighting the land deal.

"After much research and deliberation, I am writing to express my opposition to the 'land swap' that will lead to the permanent destruction of the Sawmill Wetlands," Klein wrote.

"While I strongly support economic development and the many responsible developers throughout central Ohio, this land swap, which will transfer the wetlands to a private developer in exchange for other land where manmade wetlands would be created, irrevocably harms Columbus families, taxpayers and the environment," Klein wrote.

"It also threatens the wildlife, amphibians and migratory waterfowl that call (the) wetlands home," he wrote.

Klein noted he is chairman of both the development and recreation and parks committees in his letter, which eventually appeared as a letter to the editor in The Columbus Dispatch.

"In this instance I think the balance tips in favor of environmental preservation," Klein said in an interview last week.

The Franklin County Board of Commissioners had already gone on record objecting to the deal before Klein made his feelings known.

"We are writing to express our concern and opposition to the transfer of the Sawmill Wetlands Education Area," a Dec. 19 letter from the commissioners to Zehringer and Ohio EPA Director Scott J. Nally began.

"It is our understanding that the state is planning to sell the 17 acre, publically-owned Sawmill Wetlands Area to a private developer in exchange for 43 acres of land next to the Olentangy River.

"Additionally, the soils on the Olentangy River property are not suitable for wetlands such as vernal pools," the letter from the commissioners said.

"High quality wetlands within Franklin County are rare due to development. The Sawmill Wetlands Education Area provides a unique feature in an area that has been heavily urbanized."

"It's not all that rare," Scott Varner, public information officer for the board of commissioners, said about the body taking a position on such a subject.

"I think that the commissioners on a number of different issues have tried to express their thoughts to those on a state level," Varner said.

More recently, city officials and the Ohio Nature Conservancy have become involved in the matter, with a proposal to have Columbus Recreation and Parks take over and preserve the Sawmill Wetlands area instead of it being developed.

"We think it's consistent with what we do and our mission," Alan McKnight, director of Recreation and Parks, told The Dispatch. "Recreation isn't all softball and basketball."