CLEVELAND, Ohio — One of the most contentious political debates in Northeast Ohio this year is not about the presidential election, control of the Senate or even the Ohio Statehouse corruption scandal.
It’s about zoning in Pepper Pike.
Hundreds of yard signs bearing the phrase “No to Mixed-Use” are scattered throughout the small, well-to-do far-eastern suburb. They line the sidewalk-less residential streets as part of an effort that opposition organizer Manny Naft said aims to keep the city’s “bucolic” nature.
The signs refer to a measure on the Nov. 3 ballot to change the zoning for a 68-acre tract of land owned by behavioral health services nonprofit Beech Brook, along with two smaller adjoining lots. The issue has divided the community.
The division resulted in online bickering, contentious town hall meetings, threats of defamation lawsuits and even unused condoms left at Axiom Development Principal Bryan Stone’s home.
Stone, who lives in Pepper Pike, announced last month that he and the project’s investors scrapped plans to buy and develop the property at Lander Road and Chagrin Boulevard with houses, townhouses, office space and retail. After a lot of planning, he blamed the rancor surrounding the project.
“We will not move forward and invest time and energy on an idea that has been completely removed from the realm of civil discourse,” he wrote in a Sept. 25 news release.
However, Pepper Pike voters still have a chance to vote on the zoning change in November’s election. The proposal remains on the ballot.
Beech Brook CEO Tom Royer said in an email that the nonprofit decided not to pull the measure when Stone backed out. Early voting began Tuesday.
Regardless, the organization is now out of a deal to sell a property it no longer needs to carry out its mission. The nonprofit has called Pepper Pike home for nearly a century. The land is its largest asset, one it also hoped was its most valuable and could help pay for its future work.
Stone’s withdrawal was a win for the development’s opponents. For months many scoffed at substantial change for the city of 6,300 residents, about 13 miles east of Cleveland nestled into the Chagrin Valley. Historically, it’s known for its one house, one-acre zoning code.
Many in the city – one of the richest in Ohio, with its median household income estimated at $193,889 – want to see some or all the property preserved and turned into a public preserve and park, even if it’s not clear where the money to buy the land would come.
“Mixed use is not appropriate in Pepper Pike,” said Manny Naft, a 71-year-old retired mechanical engineer who has lived there with his wife for 36 years.
But the heated opposition led some to wonder whether the property is tainted. Why would any potential developer try to build there if they had to fight with residents each step of the way? It’s something that Beech Brook leaders are thinking about too.
“We are … concerned that the same forces that prevented this sale from being completed will negatively impact our future opportunities,” the organization said in a statement Thursday, adding that it also places blame on city leaders for a moratorium it enacted on the property’s current zoning classification.
For his part, Mayor Richard Bain said he was disappointed in the way the public conversation went.
“There are many existential important issues going on in the country right now,” he said. “I would have preferred to see some of that passion dedicated to those matters.”
Missing Main Street
Stone, 34, was already behind a large housing development in neighboring Moreland Hills when he set his sights on the Beech Brook property, previously home to an orphanage and a treatment center for children with emotional and behavioral issues. The nonprofit said it wanted to sell the property because most of its work is now done mostly offsite.
To hear Stone tell it, he wanted to create something that made him proud to live in Pepper Pike. He grew up in Moreland Hills and Orange Village, attended Orange High School and moved back to the area five years ago after briefly living in Chicago.
It was there he met his wife. Both decided they wanted to live in a suburb, so it made sense to move back to the Cleveland area near his family.
“If I’m going to live in a suburb, why not go to where I have extra childcare?” he said in an interview in August.
The project was ambitious for the attorney and budding developer, who founded the Omni Group Development Company with partner Stephen Bittence in 2015 and changed the name to Axiom Development three years later. But he had help. He partnered with Yaromir Steiner, a well-known Columbus-based real-estate developer.
The flourishes Stone envisioned in the project, which he dubbed “Willey Creek at Pepper Pike,” gave a good idea of what he’d like to see in the city. He wanted to create a sort-of Main Street feel and a public square, something he said the suburb otherwise lacked.
He said he wanted to attract small business owners to the storefronts, envisioning a yoga studio, bookstore, restaurant and ice cream shop. The latter drew a lot of attention from residents, he said, recalling a long-closed Dairy Queen on Chagrin Boulevard, and said anyone who wants ice cream in Pepper Pike must leave the city to get it.
In addition to the 28 houses, 41 townhomes, and office and retail space, Stone struck a deal with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy to turn about 23 acres on and east of the creek that goes through the property into a park with ample green space and trails that the environmental group would manage.
“Our vision is a throwback to a time at the turn of the last century when communities have … space where people could live, work and play and interact with one another,” he told residents on a virtual town hall in late July.
The property and sales tax revenue also would benefit the city, he argued.
For Stone’s plans to come to fruition, voters had to approve a change in the property’s zoning from its current U-2 – or public and institutional-use status – to mixed use. Such a measure can either be placed on the ballot through the City Council or through collecting signatures.
A well-organized opposition
To hear Manny Naft and his wife Judi tell it, public opposition against building on the property was already in place before October 2019. It started growing that month, when the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission reported to the City Council on legislation that would change the land’s zoning.
A November City Council meeting drew an overflow crowd. Manny Naft said he and his wife sent 1,300 letters to residents who live near the Beech Brook property, and that many told them the letters were the first time they heard about the project. This was strange, especially for a city that frequently sends emails or texts about projects and events, he said.
In the coming months, more and more residents vocally and publicly opposed the project.
Some said traffic was already an issue on Lander Road and Chagrin Boulevard – especially where the two roads intersect at Lander Circle – and the new residents and visitors would exacerbate the problem. Other residents said the area already has enough mixed-use and retail developments. They pointed to Pinecrest in Orange Village, Eton in Woodmere and Van Aken in Shaker Heights, all within several miles of Pepper Pike.
Opponents also cited environmental concerns, speaking out against any effort to cut down trees in Pepper Pike.
Manny Naft said it was clear that Stone didn’t plan to build what Pepper Pike residents wanted. The couple’s website portrays Axiom as a shadowy development company with a leader who lacked experience.
“I think a good developer would look at the property and what the city really needs,” he said.
City Councilman Jim LeMay, who opposed the project and the ballot measure, also points out the city’s well-publicized financial crisis a decade ago, which resulted in layoffs of police officers and firefighters.
“There isn’t the urgency as in other cities … for the revenues because we’ve been very well managed fiscally,” LeMay argued.
As Stone started having meetings with residents to sell them on the idea, the number of opponents grew. The Nafts formed a political action committee in September 2019, Say No to Rezone, and started distributing yard signs in June of this year.
When the coronavirus hit, Judi Naft said they devoted even more time to the campaign, as the pandemic curtailed their volunteer work with MedWish and at the information desk of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
“We have no life,” she joked in August.
In June, Stone and a partner pulled petitions and gathered signatures on behalf of Beech Brook and two other adjoining landowners to get the zoning change proposal in front of voters. He said he was unsure if the City Council could vote to send the measure to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in time to make it on the Nov. 3 ballot.
The ballot measure asks voters if they will create a new mixed-use overlay district on the Beech Brook property and two adjoining plots yet says the zoning will not change until the City Council approves any development on it.
By then, the opposing residents had been vocal for months. The Nafts, who questioned whether Stone would follow through on the plans he laid out should the zoning amendment pass, said they distributed nearly 500 lawn signs.
A town hall held on Zoom in late July drew about 200 people. In addition to other residents, Stone’s wife and parents spoke in favor of the project.
But the opponents came in full force.
“If you want sidewalks, you’ve got them in Orange, you’ve got them in Shaker Heights, you’ve got them in University Heights,” resident Jim Weaver said. “You’ve got them all over the city of Cleveland. Pepper Pike is unique in that you have large areas where you can enjoy the wooded and the pastoral nature of the city. And we want to keep it that way.”
It wasn’t just signs, though, or the numerous discussions against the development on sites like Facebook and NextDoor. Stone said he tried to counter what he considered misleading information, such as comparing the 40,000 square feet of retail space in his plan to a development like Pinecrest, which has more than 10 times that amount.
There were other problems that he said ran deeper and were more troubling, though.
He also described getting “Unabomber”-style letters and having his house egged. In July, he filed a police report because someone put unwrapped and tied condoms in his mailbox and on his lawn.
The online statements also went after his family. Bryan’s father, Ricky Stone, was the owner of Omni Construction Company, and his son was its vice president. Omni Construction shut down in 2018 and has faced money problems and lawsuits over unfinished construction projects.
Bryan Stone said those issues stem from a former employee committing crimes against the company. Authorities are investigating, he claimed.
The legal problems included a $6.3 million judgment obtained against the now-defunct company and Ricky Stone by surety bond issuer Fidelity & Deposit Company of Maryland.
Bryan Stone said Omni Construction and his development firm were separate and unrelated. However, he said the Nafts and others, on their website and social media, wrongly portrayed the two entities as intertwined and raised questions about the fate of the Beech Brook project if Omni Construction has judgments against it.
He said the statements on the construction company had an air of “victim shaming” to them.
Stone’s attorney wrote the Nafts a cease-and-desist letter in July demanding that they remove any statements portraying Omni Construction and Axiom as related. The letter threatened a lawsuit if they continued to make what Stone said were false statements.
Judi Naft said she and her husband had their lawyer contact Stone’s attorney, and they worked out the issue. She said they were not required to remove anything from their website, though Stone said the couple had already removed the offending statements before the letter went out.
The Nafts were not the only people to whom Stone sent legal letters. He said he sent them because many attacks were against him and his family.
“I’ve grown up in the area,” he said. “A lot of the people that are in the opposition have known me or known my family for years.”
Moreland Hills, the site of another Stone project, is also a city that requires voters to approve zoning changes. That ballot measure, which passed in 2016, also saw opposition – which Stone said was more in the vein of the “Not in My Back Yard,” or “NIMBY” opposition many communities raise against new developments.
However, it did not get as heated, Stone recalled. This was way different.
“I genuinely thought that – although anytime you go through these processes, you run the risk of it turning ugly – I thought that it would be kind of like a vigorous and intense dialogue, but I didn’t think that it would go personal,” he said.
‘If not this, what do you want?’
By September, the opposition was still strong, and some city council members expressed their dissent. Bain, the city’s mayor, said he hadn’t seen Beech Brook or Stone do much in the way of campaigning for the ballot measure.
It was then that Stone decided to pull the plug. A website he used to promote the project is now offline.
“It was a really, really difficult time,” he said. “I’m hoping that, from all this, we can just move on and be a part of the community, because we do love this community.”
Royer, Beech Brook’s CEO, said he was disappointed the deal fell through.
Still, the opposition was technically toward changing the zoning for that area, not against the project itself. Beech Brook still intends to pursue the ballot measure, even without a project.
“It would be better for Beech Brook to have more flexibility with potential uses of the property,” Royer said in an email.
Bain said that he asked Royer to reconsider. But Beech Brook’s statement on Thursday made clear that the ballot measure is not a vote on a specific project. It also said the one-year moratorium on U-2 zoning the city enacted, as well as proposed changes to the code itself,
“As a longtime property owner in Pepper Pike, we believe the city has a duty to respect and to protect our property rights as much as those of any other property owner, and we feel greatly disappointed in what we have experienced over the past two years,” the statement said.
The Nafts, who have said residents are confused about the state of the ballot measure now that Axiom withdrew, said they would continue to campaign against the zoning change. Some residents took signs down, but many remain.
As for the hope of turning the property into a park and preserve, many want it, but the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s brass thinks it may be challenging.
Alex Czayka, the environmental group’s senior vice president for conservation transactions, said it may be difficult for the group to raise enough money to buy the property. The price of the proposed deal has not been disclosed.
That said, the mission is to preserve land, and Czayka said he plans to reach out to Beech Brook officials.
But Rico Pietro of Cushman & Wakefield/Cresco Real Estate, who also lives in Pepper Pike, said he doesn’t think the park will happen. He also challenged the opposition to come up with a better plan than just defeating Stone’s plans.
“If not this, what do you want?” he said.
Getting another developer interested in buying the land may also be a tough sell, according to local real estate industry insiders. After Stone faced heated opposition, something other developers have seen in other cities in Ohio and across the country, they wonder if anyone would want to try again.
Bain opposed the ballot measure because he said it froze into place language that did not adequately protect the city’s interests. Nevertheless, he thinks the city needs to evolve and said he was disappointed the discussion was so focused on the project instead of the zoning.
“I think that Pepper Pike, while preserving its past, also needs to continue to make itself attractive to young families in 2020 looking for a place to invest and move,” he said.
Royer remained optimistic, though admitted he didn’t know if Stone’s experience will scare others off. So did Bain.
“There’s always the right developer for the right project with their own vision that they can make successful,” the mayor said.
But what if the residents oppose the next plan?
“There’s no question that the experience the developer went through is going to impact the ability to sell that property,” Terry Coyne, a vice chairman of the Newmark Knight Frank brokerage firm, said.
Ryan Sommers, a managing director for the Project Management Consultants firm in Cleveland, also said financial backers could get skittish if they see a well-organized opposition campaign.
“It’s challenging enough to finance a mixed-use project in Northeast Ohio, and then you add in public opposition,” said Sommers, who added that his firm did some financial analysis for Axiom. “I think it’s insurmountable from a feasibility standpoint.”
Stone agreed, saying, “I do think that anyone who’s looking at it isn’t going to ignore the process that we’ve gone through.”
Strangely enough, so did the Nafts.
“If I were a developer, I would be very hesitant to come in after the public opposition there was to develop this property,” Judi Naft said.