After months of discussion and debate, Gahanna is moving forward with an easement and right-of-way agreement with M/I Homes of Central Ohio LLC for a pathway into Hannah Park from the Weldon development in Jefferson Township.

Gahanna City Council voted 5-2 on Sept. 16 to authorize the mayor to enter into the agreement with M/I.

Council president Brian Metzbower, vice president Stephen Renner and members Karen Angelou, Nancy McGregor and Michael Schnetzer voted for it. Members Brian Larick and Jamie Leeseberg dissented.

“For a relatively small item, this is a bit of a struggle for me individually,” Larick said.

“I don’t know that there is an absolute. ... There certainly isn’t an absolute right or absolute wrong on this particular one. However, what strikes me, especially over the weekend, is we have ongoing charges for residents to use our park facilities, to rent our spaces, our shelters, the gazebo, any of a variety of those items. All of our athletic programs that aren’t run by the city that are run by volunteer programs have nonresident surcharges that are ongoing. The intent of that is to recoup ongoing expenditures because it’s conceptually additional overhead over wear and tear,” he said.

He said to not have something ongoing in a similar fashion doesn’t seem to fit for the pathway that connects M/I’s phase 1 of Weldon in Jefferson Township to Gahanna’s Hannah Park, 6547 Clark State Road.

In exchange for the easement on 0.058 acre to install, maintain, inspect and repair a pedestrian trail, the agreement states M/I will pay Gahanna $150,000 no later than five business days after M/I’s receipt of the easement documents.

Leeseberg praised parks director Jeff Barr, M/I and others who worked on the issue but said he’s disappointed with the way it turned out.

“It is what it is,” he said. “Thanks to everyone for their hard work on this.”

Gahanna Mayor Tom Kneeland said he was surprised there were several votes against accepting $150,000 from M/I that will be earmarked for park maintenance, especially after the discussion was led by a special group of city council members and interested parties and seemed to have unanimous support.

“The administration has been working very hard for years to expand our major regional trail system,” Kneeland said. “Section 8 of the Big Walnut Trail was completed last year and finished a major north-south route from Morse Road south to I-270, with one final section left to complete.”

He also cited emphasis on expanding east-west connector trails to neighborhoods and the business community during difficult budget hearings in 2018 and 2019 and during two ballot issues that proposed increasing the city’s income-tax rate by a percentage point.

Although the path to Hannah Park was an unplanned connection, Kneeland said, it certainly meets the goals of trail expansion, and residents who bike, jog and walk expect expansion of the trail system, which is a major goal in the GoForward Gahanna plan.

“I’m disappointed that the Jefferson Township trustees didn’t see this as a major value to the township and step up as community partners to support the trail connector for their residents by underwriting a small cost share to maintain the township portion of the access path into Hannah Park if the HOA fails,” he said.

Kneeland was referring to the homeowners association. Some HOAs eventually become inactive.

“It’s obvious that the township places a higher priority and value on property-tax revenue instead of quality of life for their residents after they approved another extended-stay residential hotel on Taylor Station Road, surrounded by commercial and industrial users, and this will have unintended consequences long into the future,” he said.

Kneeland said new development places families and their children in living situations where sidewalks, public green space and other community-support amenities couldn’t have been considered necessary to the health, safety and welfare of residents, as is the case in Gahanna.

Once the agreement is given to him for his signature, Kneeland said, he will consider processing it, and he will recommend that the funds be earmarked for the long-term maintenance and improvements of Hannah Park.

Renner, who brought the Hannah path issue to council committee in May, said Gahanna is known for its incredible park system and it’s one of the most-cited reasons people visit or move to the city.

“With or without a private path, it seems obvious that a neighborhood so near to one of our parks will be using the park’s facilities,” he said. “It was never a realistic option to bar these families from the park.”

To turn down an offer to help pay for those facilities just because of hurt feelings would have been prideful, Renner said, and it only would have served to perpetuate a needless rift with a neighboring community.

“In moments like this, we have to decide what kind of city we want to be,” he said. “I’d like us to be the kind that welcomes our neighbors with open arms, not one that yells (at) people to get off our lawn.”

Josh Barkan, M/I vice president of land development, said he’s pleased with the approved legislation and appreciates everyone’s efforts in finding a mutually agreeable resolution.

Metzbower said he doesn’t disagree with the points of dissention with his council colleagues.

“As I’ve noted many, many times, a little communication goes a long way to avoid ... it can turn a molehill into a mountain,” he said. “Again, ongoing communication between all parties involved, I think, could have headed off a lot of emotions and hard feelings that came about from this. I think we have bigger fish to fry.”

Metzbower said he wants to get the issue behind the city so everyone can get on with making the communities the best they can be.

Angelou said she wants a sign at that particular gateway, stating, “Welcome to the city of Gahanna. Please take care of our parks. We have rules and regulations.”

“At this point, I think it’s right to move on,” she said. “And I think it’s right that people know that we’re attempting to be good neighbors, but we expect that back.”

The back story

The path issue began in spring, when some Jefferson Township residents in the Weldon development by M/I Homes, off Darling and Reynoldsburg-New Albany roads, were upset about the closure of a path that has provided residents access to Hannah Park.

Kneeland had said the city’s planning and development team last year worked diligently to come to an agreement with M/I Homes that would have provided access, but the agreement didn’t come to fruition. M/I then was told to restore the area to its previous condition.

“When we all moved into Weldon, there was a path from Darling Road over to Hannah Park’s path that connects to Hannah Farms, as well,” Weldon resident Sara Martin-Fuller said at the time.

She said she moved to Weldon in January, but some families have lived there since October 2018.

“All of a sudden, one day last week, there were people here ripping up all the gravel that was part of the path and told some of our neighbors that they were told to take away the path and that Gahanna didn’t want us to access the park through this path.”

After council approved the legislation for the path, Martin-Fuller said she wanted to thank Gahanna for being good neighbors and working to reach an agreement.

“This was a decision that is best for the whole community and will only help to keep us all connected,” she said.