Investigator: I-90 project called 'highway robbery'

12:35 AM, Mar 29, 2011   |    comments
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AVON -- A suburb is charging some property owners big bucks to pay for a freeway ramp that will benefit developers.

The Investigator Tom Meyer tells why you could easily become the next victim.

The Rock Pile Garden Center fought to stay open during the recession, but owner Brian McKeown says it might have been for nothing if the city charges him more than $275,000 on two properties he owns to help pay for a new interchange.

"We currently have our third generation... working in the business," McKeown said. "I don't see that as something that's going to be able to continue."

He's not alone. For the first time the state can recall, property and business owners are being charged $9 million to help pay for the freeway on-off ramp at Lear-Nagle Road.

"It just seems like it's stacked against us," said Kathy Herbst, whose family farm is being charged $188,000.

Channel 3 News sat down with a dozen of them who complain the city's taking their hard-earned cash and giving it to a developer.

"Basically, the city has sold their soul to cater to one developer and that would be the Jacobs Group," said David Moore, who owns farmland and is being charged.

The Jacobs Group stands to cash in big time, given that the city expects land to skyrocket up to $1 million an acre and the developer owns roughly 200 acres. 

Like to know how much they're paying for the ramp? Here's the breakdown:

• Jacobs Group is paying $9 million, or a third of the costs.

• The 105 nearby property owners are also paying $9 million.

• Other Avon taxpayers are paying the remaining $9 million through a tax-incremental financing district.

A spokesman for the Jacobs Group told us he wasn't going to engage in a debate with landowners through the media.

The Cleveland Clinic, meanwhile, is building a $100 million facility next to the interchange, but it's not being asked to pay a dime.

Alan Weinstein, a local land development expert and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law professor, calls the Jacobs Group and the Cleveland Clinic the big winner in the deal.

"It's worth an incredible amount of money to the developer to be able to get a project up and running," said Weinstein, who added that he "would be dubious" that the 105 property owners would see similar benefits once the interchange is constructed.

Weinstein believed the city was attempting to be fair in how it charged the property owners, but he said the city didn't take into account the hardship those property owners face.

"They are going to suffer significant disruption as a result of the construction activity and there is nothing in the financing scheme that accounts for that," he said. "It has a devastating effect, particularly on small businesses."

The mayor says not so fast. Nearby property owners, he argues, will also strike it rich.

"They're going to make more money than you ever imagined in a lifetime," said Mayor James Smith. "If you win the lottery and they ask you to pay your income tax, is that unfair?"

The mayor says the city hopes to pay the landowners back -- if tax dollars start rolling in. He also said farmers who are being charged won't have to pay their bill unless they stop farming or they sell their property.

"If the assessment were there without the payback, are they fair? Yeah," said Smith. "With the payback, they're more than just fair."

Small business owners hope they're still around when the project is done. They fear customers won't have an easy time getting to their businesses during construction.

"We're going to be very hard pressed to survive, very hard pressed," McKeown said.

Weinstein said he believes more cities in similar circumstances will adopt this type of funding.

Don't expect the state to step in. A Ohio Department of Transportation official called the charges "an innovative way" to find dollars to build such roadways.


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