Conservancy offered to buy Newton Falls land

NEWTON FALLS — The Western Reserve Land Conservancy confirmed on Thursday it did offer to purchase 42 acres of primeval forest behind Newton Falls Elementary School last year despite a board member’s denial that any offer was made.

The Western Reserve Land Conservancy is a nonprofit organization based in Moreland Hills that works to conserve natural areas, preserve farmland and revitalize urban centers, according to its website.

The Newton Falls Board of Education in April awarded a $147,000 contract to Noah Troyer of R&T Lumber in Middlefield to timber the 42 acres in an effort to shore up the district’s finances. The board plans to do a selective harvest of the trees and has been working with Timothy Morgan, a forest manager from Camp James A. Garfield, on the timbering plan since August.

The contract with Troyer is on hold because an injunction was filed against the district to prevent it from cutting down the trees.

Trumbull County Common Pleas Court magistrate Beth Anne Aurilio on Tuesday heard testimony from Morgan, Newton Falls Board of Education member Amie Crowder, lawsuit plaintiffs Werner Lange and Patti Hanzes, as well as David Hinchman, whose property abuts the forest where the timbering is planned.

Aurilio will take the testimony under advisement to determine if the case has enough merit to proceed, court records show. No timeline was given, but Lange said he is hoping a decision will be made within a few weeks.

Lange said the board’s attorneys are challenging whether he, Hanzes and Hinchman have legal standing to challenge the timbering plan since they are not parties to, nor direct beneficiaries of, a deed filed as part of the case.

The deed in question is dated Oct. 30, 1987, and conveys 42 acres of undeveloped woods to the board from Don P. Cook and Nils P. Johnson. The deed notes the land was donated “to be used for educational or public purposes the board deems proper.” The deed also includes a restrictive covenant that states if the lands are not used for those purposes for a period of 10 years, the land should automatically revert back to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Emails sent to the Tribune Chronicle show the conservancy did reach out to the Newton Falls Board of Education about potentially purchasing the school property.

Alex Czayka, senior vice president for conservation transactions for the conservancy, confirmed he had a conversation with a board member, but it didn’t go anywhere. In an article published Wednesday, Crowder said the board had no discussion about the conservancy purchasing the land.

However, Crowder said in an interview Wednesday that fellow board member Brent Powell talked to them.

“Mr. Powell had contacted them early last year and that was before we even went forward with timber managers or anything,” Crowder said.

Crowder said Powell told the board about a grant application that could be filled out, but there was no guarantee the land would be chosen.

In a email from February, Czayka told another individual the school board had considered the sale, but his understanding was that the board did not want to wait the six months to a year it would take the WRLC to pay.

“The property is the school board’s,” Crowder said. “If we want to put in a baseball field, or soccer field, or put a band practice field — that is our choice.

“We do what we do for the best interest of the students,” Crowder said. “It’s not that I want the trees taken down, they’re an asset for the education of the kids.”