Protected Public Green Space in Jeopardy

Saturday, November 17, 2012

ODNR attempting to transfer rare, protected natural area to private developer. Today, perhaps for the very last time, the public had the opportunity to tour the Sawmill Wetland Education Area.

Despite excitedly accepting the Sawmill Wetlands in 1996 and promising to preserve the area in perpetuity, a mere 16 years later the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) is finalizing an agreement to transfer this area to a private entity for development.

In a show of support for protecting this unique area, local residents joined the Sierra Club and Ohio Environmental Council for a tour and rally.

Rally to Save Sawmill Wetland Education Area

Citizens expressed their strong opposition to this transfer and support for preserving the last remaining public green space in the area.

"It's unthinkable that the ODNR is planning to transfer this public property to a private entity that plans to develop the site," stated Steve McCaw, local resident and founder of Friends of the Sawmill Wetlands. "This is a gem that is both a community and environmental asset, and we need others - the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Governor's office, and the City of Columbus - to step in and not allow this awful deal to go through."

Wetlands provide many important services that benefit the environment and public alike. Wetlands serve as critical habitat for wildlife, capture and absorb storm and flood waters, and provide a visually appealing space and connection to the natural world for local residents, among other things.

The Sawmill parcel is also home to a rare population of breeding salamanders as well as mature trees. Ohio has lost 90% of its wetlands since the 1800s and Franklin County has been one of the hardest hit areas.

The development of this area would be a big loss for the environment and the local community, as this is one of very few high quality wetlands in Franklin County.

"The preservation of this wetland area is critical for the health of the local watershed, wetland protection across the state, and the enjoyment of natural areas by the public," said Kristen Kubitza, Director of Water Policy & Outreach with OEC. "ODNR has the opportunity to live up to their promise and preserve this area permanently for the benefit of the environment and the citizens of Ohio."

Transferring the Sawmill Wetlands to a private developer furthers the destruction of Ohio's few remaining high quality wetlands and sets a dangerous precedent that threatens other protected wetlands across the state.

"If developers can offer up low quality, non-wetland areas for high quality, valuable wetlands that have been protected through mitigation plans, then Ohio will soon have no wetlands left," stated Sierra Club Conservation Coordinator, Ben Wickizer.

Columbus Parks and Recreation has also expressed strong interest in obtaining the property from ODNR. The City would preserve the Sawmill Wetlands and uphold the purpose for which they were originally transferred to ODNR. However, ODNR appears uninterested in this option.

The developer is required to file an application for an Isolated Wetlands Permit from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA). OEPA Surface Water staff have expressed concerns about the deal and said the wetlands should be preserved permanently.

However, in previous press statements, OEPA spokesman Chris Abbruzzese has indicated the agency's support for the deal. Citizens are encouraged to attend and share their opinions at the OEPA's permit hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

Sawmill Wetland area was donated to ODNR by a developer, as part of a permit requirement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in order to compensate for the destruction of other wetlands. ODNR promised federal regulators that the transfer of the property would ensure the wetlands, and the surrounding wooded area, would be preserved permanently.

ODNR is now disregarding that commitment and wants to trade the Sawmill parcel for 43 acres on the Olentangy River. The Olentangy parcel is of substantially less quality, has no wetlands, is not able to support man-made wetlands according to OEPA and ODNR staff, and appears to have a significantly lower market value.

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The mission of the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) is to secure healthy air, land, and water for all who call Ohio home. The OEC is Ohio's leading advocate for fresh air, clean water, and sustainable land use. The OEC has a 40-year history of innovation, pragmatism, and success. Using legislative initiatives, legal action, scientific principles, and statewide partnerships, the OEC secures a healthier environment for Ohio's families and communities.

Founded in 1892, the Sierra Club is the nation's largest and oldest grassroots environmental organization. The Ohio Chapter has been working to improve Ohio's environment since 1968. The Chapter works on issues ranging from clean water protections to greener transportation options to achieving a sustainable energy future. More information can be found at www.ohiosierraclub.org.