Activism: Issues Spur Citizens Into Political Action, Area Candidacies
While national politics have been somewhat tumultuous recently, it can be easy to forget that everyday citizens can get involved and have an impact on local issues. In Northwest Ohio alone, there is a myriad of examples of residents who decided to stand up and fight for what they thought was right. Some efforts were successful; others were not, and it is too soon to tell on others.
One recent example of grassroots political activism was the organized opposition earlier this year to the proposed widening of Secor Road between Bancroft Street and Central Avenue. The project called for the addition of a pair of roundabouts and would have required the acquisition and demolition of more than a dozen Ottawa Hills homes along Secor.
Village resident Dana Dunbar questioned the proposal and began to do her own research.
"It just didn't sit well with me because it seemed like it wasn't the right answer for our area," Dunbar said.
She spent hours researching communities similar to Ottawa Hills, and how they answered infrastructure issues comparable to Secor Road. She started a facebook group called "Save Our Secor" to allow people to share articles and videos about alternatives to the proposal.
Dunbar had never attended Village council meetings before the Secor proposal came up.
"I realized I was failing as a citizen, as a neighbor, as a resident, by not attending the council meetings," Dunbar said. "I couldn't put this on anybody else until I put it on myself, and said, 'okay, so how am I going to change my behavior, how can I create a positive impact in the community that I love?'... I felt an obligation to the community."
Even after the Secor proposal was voted down, Dunbar still wants to be a part of the conversation and encourage others to be more involved with Village governance, so much so that she decided to run for Village council this November.
Dunbar is not the only resident to get involved with local issues.
Last year, when Kroger announced its desire to build a new store on property owned by the Sisters of Notre Dame on the southwest corner of Secor and Sylvania Avenue, it was met with opposition from a number of individuals. Opponents lamented the loss of green space and the addition of yet another "big box" store.
Villager Jim Trumm decided to get involved in the campaign opposing the plan. He thought there was already a good deal of urban blight in the Toledo area, and didn't think the loss of green space was the right idea.
Trumm coordinated the communication aspect of the campaign and established a strategy for informing the public of his research. He created a website where he shared why, in the group's opinion, the Kroger-Notre Dame site was a bad idea.
He attended every committee meeting regarding the issue, arguing against Kroger building on the Notre Dame site. He researched Krogers in other towns, and saw they were building huge "superstores" with what he described as "horrible architecture."
"Why should Toledo settle for this?" Trumm asked himself, the residents of Toledo, and committee members.
The group's efforts were successful, and Toledo city council rejected Kroger's request for a zoning variance that would have cleared the way for the new store. However, after their original plan was rejected, Kroger revised their plan, and it was subsequently approved by city council.
Trumm's involvement in the counter-campaign was the first time he had interacted with the Toledo City Council.
"I learned how to make a political case in a larger community than Ottawa Hills," Trumm said. "I learned how to talk and how to listen to many different players involved with both sides."
Despite the final outcome, Trumm said the campaign was a positive experience and he "would absolutely do it again."
Dunbar and Trumm are not the only Villagers to get involved in local politics.
After a dispute over a special-use permit for some land he owns in western Lucas County, Duke Wheeler has entered this November's race for Waterville Township trustee.
Several years ago, Wheeler, the owner of the Butterfly House and the Whitehouse Christmas Tree Farm, decided to buy a barn adjacent to his property on Obee Road in western Lucas County. His intention was to renovate the barn and turn it into a venue that could host weddings and other events.
Prior to making improvements to the property, Wheeler sought the approval of Waterville Township, where the barn was located. After complying with a series of stipulations set forth by the Township, he was granted a special use permit for the venue, which he named The Stables on Obee.
He made a host of improvements to the property, including electrical, plumbing, and heating and ventilation. He also widened the driveway, to address concerns raised by the local fire department.
After complaints from a neighbor about noise from the new venue, Wheeler made additional changes to the property, in an effort to mitigate the problem. The Waterville Township trustees subsequently canceled the venue's special-use permit, six months after The Stables on Obee opened for business.
Wheeler took the township to court, and the judge subsequently ruled in his favor.
He decided, however, to petition the Lucas County commissioners to approve the transfer of the 8.6-acre parcel of land on which The Stables is located from Waterville Township to adjacent Swanton Township. His request was supported by Swanton Township officials and was approved by the commissioners in 2016.
While The Stables on Obee is now in Swanton Township, the rest of Wheeler's holdings in the immediate area are still in Waterville Township. Wheeler does not regret changing townships, nor taking Waterville Township to court.
"I'm fighting for principle, you need to stick up for your rights. I have full trust in the legal system. The township needs to be open and follow the regulations," Wheeler said. "I would do it again because I'm fighting for what's right."
Someone else who stepped up when she thought her neighborhood was in jeopardy is Karen Mayfield, Executive Assistant to Ottawa Hills Schools Superintendent Kevin Miller. Mayfield, who lives in Washington Township, was just one resident who was alarmed by plans for a proposed truck terminal on Suder Avenue, within the Toledo city limits.
General Truck Sales had purchased 20 acres of land between Interstate 75 and Suder, just down the street from Shoreland Elementary. Suder is the boundary between the city and the township.
The parcel was zoned residential, and while it had a trio of modest homes along Suder, it was predominantly wooded and included a category 3 wetland. Residents were also concerned about the impact of increased semi-tractor trailer traffic on Suder, which is a two-lane road.
"We studied local zoning, we studied site plans, we studied environmental law, we studied school safety, we studied semi trucks and how much distance is needed to turn and stop on dry and wet pavement," Mayfield said. "A lot of research and a lot of letter writing to councilpeople, environmental agencies, local and statewide, a lot of letters and phone calls to senators and congresspeople."
Mayfield, along with a cadre of Washington Township residents - including the township fire chief, police chief, school board, and trustees - all voiced their opposition to the proposal. The city's Plan Commission also opposed General Truck's request for a change in zoning to light industrial. As in the Kroger-Notre Dame debate earlier this year, Toledo city council overrode the Commission's action and granted the rezoning request.
The opponents were able to get General Truck to agree to build a sidewalk along the eastern edge of Suder, so pedestrians would have a safe path alongside the road.
Despite losing the battle, Mayfield says she would do it all again. She says the whole experience has made her more aware of the things she is capable of doing as a citizen.
"If we don't protect our environment, our children, our schools, which are the heart of our community and our neighborhoods, then what are we all working for?" Mayfield asked. "You want to go home at night and be glad to be home. You want to know that you're sending your child to a nice safe school."
"We know we fought with honesty and integrity, and I can go to sleep at night knowing we tried everything we could, on the side of right," Mayfield said. "I've come to know that it's okay to respectfully agree to disagree, and still be cordial and decent to one another."
"We are concerned, caring citizens, and it's important ... you have to protect your schools, your environments, and your neighborhoods. Residents' voices need to matter. Not just be heard; they need to matter," Mayfield said. "If you don't give up, you'll be surprised at what resources are available to you. You just have to have the desire to make whatever situation is thrown your way better."