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Judge favors Fairlawn in Rothrock Road case

6/13/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

DOWNTOWN AKRON — Fairlawn officials are happy the long-awaited conclusion to a lawsuit filed by Copley Township over the closure of Rothrock Road found the city acted within its rights. The city closed the road to protect a residential neighborhood from development of a new Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club.

“We are very pleased,” Fairlawn Mayor Bill Roth said. “We agree with the ruling. Prior to us taking any action, we did our research. We believe we acted within our limits and in accordance with Ohio Revised Code.”

Summit County Common Pleas Court Judge Alison McCarty filed her order in the case of Copley Township vs. City of Fairlawn, Ohio, et al June 7. The lawsuit had been filed in 2011 after Fairlawn City Council voted unanimously to close Rothrock Road west of Sawgrass Drive. The move came in response to plans calling for the commercial development there on a nearly 40-acre commercially zoned parcel in Copley.

McCarty heard 12 days of testimony on the lawsuit in court last summer. In the order, the judge wrote the plaintiffs “failed to meet the heavy burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that defendants acted in an unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious manner, or that they acted in bad faith.”

Copley Township officials released a statement that said they still believe the city’s decision to close Rothrock Road to traffic was “ill conceived and created a danger to the public health and safety, particularly in the area of response times. The court’s decision does nothing to change that belief, and indeed, the court specifically found that Copley raised ‘serious concerns in a convincing manner about the wisdom of such a road closure.’”

Trustee Dale Panovich said the township’s attorney was out of town this week. She added she expected trustees would discuss its options with him in executive session at its next meeting June 19.

As for the project, Panovich said the lawsuit was never a hindrance to it and plans are proceeding for the stores that would replace the current Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club at Rosemont Commons in Fairlawn.

“They have filed a site plan and they are going forward,” Panovich said.

The new plan was submitted to the township in March. Panovich added the township is close to getting all the replies from agencies reviewing the plan, such as the Summit County Engineer’s Office.

In the order, McCarty stated Copley officials asserted that Fairlawn’s plan to close Rothrock Road was illegal because the road is a principal roadway connecting the two municipalities. The township’s police and fire chiefs also testified they had concerns about access and response times for Copley residents who could be affected by the closure, particularly those in the retirement community Copley Place.

The township also claimed the closure was in bad faith because the city participated in an “anticompetitive scheme” with developers Herbert Newman and Robert Stark, owners of Rosemont Commons.

In the trial, Fairlawn officials provided evidence that showed there would be no effect on response times for safety officials coming from two of three stations that serve the area in question. They also asserted that additional safety and traffic problems would ensue if the development were to move forward.

The city also cited that based on the Ohio Department of Transportation’s road rating system, Rothrock Road is not considered a principal highway but is instead an “urban local” road with 3,000 to 3,500 vehicles per day. 

In her decision, McCarty said both sides raised legitimate safety issues, but she ruled Fairlawn has taken significant precautionary measures. Because of mutual aid agreements in that area, the judge said the area in question actually is one of the most thoroughly covered in the event of an emergency.

She also agreed with Fairlawn’s contention that Rothrock Road is not a principal highway. In addition, McCarty said the idea that opposing the new development was a “conspiracy” did not hold up because “many people oppose the proposed commercial development and its inherent effects for various reasons.”

Among the evidence the judge cited as being most convincing for her was the testimony from Jason Segedy, director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study. He testified that if development proceeds, the impact on adjacent residential neighborhoods “would be negative and far reaching.”

Roth, who was headed out of town for vacation when he got the news last week about the ruling, said he has heard from a few residents and City Council members who are pleased the decision went their way.

He said in his 18 years as mayor, Fairlawn and Copley have had their ups and downs, but he hopes that both can move on from here.

“We always look forward to working with our neighbors,” he said. “We have a lot of common issues we work on together and we do them quite well.”

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