A group of concerned Aurora citizens led by resident George Heisler and have uncovered a number of investigative findings on the Ohio EPA / City of Aurora boondoggle to buy then close the Aurora Golf Club using state taxpayer funds.
Heisler, who filed an appeal against the approved project in January, has outlined a series of significant issues with the procedures used by the City of Aurora and the Ohio EPA that have yet to be made public, and several damning collusions between the current golf course owner and the previous Aurora Mayor.
These “follow-the-money” findings include:
1) The current owner of Aurora Golf Club, Hunter Banbury, appears to have intentionally misled Aurora residents on the reason for the commercial rezoning ballot initiative for the golf course clubhouse in May 2011.
At that time, Banbury claimed that the clubhouse needed to be changed from R2 residential with special CZC zoning to a full-use commercial C1 zoning to allow the clubhouse to fully operate for the benefit of the golf course patrons and local residents.
Banbury produced a ballot flyer (shown here) stating as much, and made those same claims as documented in an Aurora Planning Commission Meeting in October 2010 about the zoning change.
But even as he sought this new zoning while telling Aurora residents that he planned to operate the golf course long-term, Banbury was already working on the water quality buy-out application, beginning in July 2010.
Even more astounding, Banbury was working with Aurora Mayor Lynn McGill, who signed the December 2010 Ohio EPA application document five months before the zoning vote! McGill sat by without comment as Banbury continued to promote his ‘for the community’ zoning initiative to Aurora residents in a May 2011 vote, knowing full well that he had just signed and submitted the first application in December to sell then close the golf course.
Closing the course through a land sale to the Ohio EPA would end the special R2/CZC zoning that existed on the clubhouse, rendering the 17,000 sq ft building commercially unusable and incredibly difficult to sell. So Banbury needed to convince Aurora residents that a new C1 zoning was in their best interest and would make the golf course operations better, when in reality the primary benefit was to Banbury — to make an Ohio EPA land sale significantly more valuable to him. And McGill knew fully about the water quality application, yet never said a word to City Council or residents about the conflict.
2) The purchase price of the Aurora Golf Club to the Ohio EPA kept going up, even though no changes were made to the property and overall real estate values were falling.
The City of Aurora filed two applications with the Ohio EPA for the Aurora Golf Club project: one in December 2010 (which later was deemed incomplete) and a second one, revised and submitted in September 2011.
The December 2010 showed a land appraisal valued at $2.5M, but listed the sale price to the EPA as $3.3M — $800,000 above the appraisal price. The first application stated that if the project was funded, an updated appraisal would be completed to support the budgeted $3.3M price.
When the December 2010 application was was not funded, Aurora submitted a new application to the Ohio EPA in September 2011. A new appraiser provided Banbury a windfall, appraising the land at $3.9M — a $1.4M increase in just 9 months with no change to the property, in a depressed real estate market.
The biggest conflict of interest: the Trust for Public Land (TPL) selected the appraiser for the second Ohio EPA application. It has been reported the Trust for Public Land, acting as the middleman/broker for this entire project, stands to collect a fee once the sale of the golf course to the Ohio EPA is completed.
3) The Aurora City Council did not authorize the Mayor to submit the December 2010 or the September 2011 purchase application to Ohio EPA, as was done for a similar March 2010 Spring Hill Farms EPA application.
Then-mayor Lynn McGill signed both the December 2010 and September 2011 Ohio EPA application documents himself — with no voted approval from City Council.
Most likely, this was done to keep Aurora voters in the dark: if Council had openly discussed the December 2010 water buy-out application, the statements made by Banbury in support of the May 2011 ballot rezoning campaign would be clearly false, and most likely Aurora residents would have declined. Such discussions would also have required McGill to weigh in on the topic, putting his knowledge of the double-sided tale on public record.
4) The Ohio EPA comment period for the initial application was only made “public” to those persons who had been part of the application process. The comment period notice from the Ohio EPA was not easily found by anyone past the application group, as it was only posted on the Ohio EPA website in a vaguely worded reference: the title of the proposal did not contain the name of the golf course in it, as most other property sales applications do. No specific notice of this major land use change was provided to any of the residents who live along the golf course, either.
5) The arcane but detailed “wetlands scoring method” for project funding for Water Quality grants was not followed. The wetlands property as a percentage of total property area did not meet the requirements for clear approval as a fundable project, so a secondary approval reason was required. One valid secondary reason is a “˜reasonable water quality improvement’, but that benefit could not be documented clearly or scientifically by the Ohio EPA — made obvious by the fact that no scientific data was contained within the plan, as usually is. But the grant funding by the Ohio EPA was approved anyway.
6) The city of Aurora now plans to centralize its Parks and Recreation Department in the building that was once used by the golf course maintenance crew. This move was not listed as part of the original application. In essence, the City of Aurora gains a free building for doing a “˜water quality’ deal with the State, an obvious conflict of interest. The use of the building is also a significant variance on the Ohio EPA’s rules for buildings on purchased project property. Additionally, the new Aurora Mayor, James Fisher, indicates that the single lane road that runs down to this maintenance building should be widened to two lanes to accommodate its use for the Parks and Recreation Department. But such a change to the property is specifically against the terms of the water quality agreement.
What do all of these new findings mean? Heisler’s appeal hearing to the Environmental Review Appeals Commission Board will be held in Sept 2013. That means there is still one last chance for a far more intense review of this entire project, and time to shine a light on what is clearly a waste of taxpayer money.
But it will be a significantly uphill battle, as the golf course has already been closed, the clubhouse sold, the maintenance equipment gone.
The Ohio EPA director released the purchase funds before Heisler’s initial appeal case was heard by the ERAC appeals board. Aurora quickly purchased the land directly from Banbury instead of going through the TPL as was stated in the only City Council ordinance passed on this project. The TPL created the transfer deeds for Banbury (earning an enormous fee for doing so), and those deeds were signed on January 28th. Banbury sold the Clubhouse to a funeral home owner in December 2012, and his since sold off all of the golf course equipment. See the OhioWatchdog.org story on the quick transfer and closing here.
The ERAC will review the sale and decide on the merits of the arguments presented; they can reverse the use of Ohio EPA funds, then the City of Aurora would be on the hook for the purchase price. Prior to that ERAC hearing, it would be of significant benefit if the major media outlets in Northeast Ohio put a spotlight on how taxpayer money was used to close a viable business. And it would be of real significance (and a show of good governance!) if the area’s state representatives, members of Governor Kasich’s team, and perhaps even the State Attorney General would step in to thoroughly review this entire approval process prior to that September hearing.