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Breaking down the White Pond Drive housing development debate in Akron

white_pond_trespass.jpg
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
"No trespassing" signs were installed over the weekend at a city-owned property off of White Pond Drive in Akron. The area is the site of controversial development proposal.

This story was updated at 9:56 a.m.

On a recent overcast day, small snow flurries started to fall as Akron residents David Loar and Andrea Neikamp, who live near a wooded property the city plans to develop, made their case for why it should stay just the way it is.

“To me, this is mainly beauty, with little spots of places that need cleaned up. But to me, trees, and growth, and water are beauty, and we’re lucky to have it, and it’s a shame they’re going to ruin it,” Niekamp said.

They’ve seen lots of wildlife on the property, including birds, deer, foxes and coyotes - especially when it’s warmer.

But the property off White Pond Drive is neither a park nor a nature preserve.

Akron residents Andrea Niekamp and David Loar
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
Andrea Niekamp (left) and David Loar (right) observe one of the ponds located in a vacant wooded area off of White Pond Drive in Akron. They're opposed to a proposed housing development at the property due to environmental concerns.

Akron has owned the 65 acres for 16 years and originally planned to build an office park there. From 1970 to 2010, a business stored concrete aggregates, broken concrete, asphalt and other road construction debris there, according to city officials.

Demand for office space dropped during the pandemic, so city officials are now considering selling the land to a developer, Triton Property Ventures LLC, for a mixed-use project called White Pond Reserve. The plans call for hundreds of rental homes and apartments and 51,000 square feet of retail space.

City Council must decide whether that's a good idea. Residents like Loar and Niekamp have flocked to council meetings over the past few weeks expressing concerns that the project will disrupt the ecosystem on the property, which contains wetlands.

White Pond Reserve development proposed layout
Environmental Design Group
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The proposed layout of White Pond Reserve, a mixed-use residential and retail project.

There’s a significant demand for housing in Akron, city officials said, and this development would help meet that demand. But Loar, Neikamp and other neighbors of the property are strongly opposed to the development. Many people like to walk their dogs and go bird watching on the property, Niekamp said.

But Sean Vollman, the city's deputy mayor for integrated development, said the property was never intended for recreation.

“When we purchased this land, it was never intended to be a park … and, you know, [that] might technically be trespassing at this point in time. I'm not sure. But we're not we're not going down that road,” Vollman said.

The day after Ideastream’s interview with Vollman, city workers put up “no trespassing” signs around the property, warning that violators could face up to a $350 fine and jail time. Workers also put up barriers to keep people from driving down an inroad to the property.

A city spokesperson said the signs were put up to better inform residents of unsafe conditions on the property and to make it clear that it is not a public park.

According to city officials, tests done at the property have shown fill materials, including slag, concrete, stone and household trash, are present in the soil three to 10 feet deep in some areas.

Residents want wildlife studied

Niekamp, Loar and other residents are concerned construction will disrupt the ecosystem of the wetlands and possibly impact endangered species. Some residents have reported seeing a bald eagle there, though that has not been confirmed.

Peter Niewiarowski, a biologist at the University of Akron, has spotted nearly-endangered turtles and salamanders nearby – which indicates they’re probably on that property, too, he said.

“We’re just concerned that in moving so fast, not only will corners potentially be cut, purposely or inadvertently, but in the end, what’s going to suffer is going to be the habitat, the species that are resident there, as well as greater Akron,” Niewiarowski said.

Pond at proposed White Pond Reserve site
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
One of the ponds in the vacant wooded area off of White Pond Drive in Akron, pictured on Nov. 16, 2022.

Developers are not planning to build on the wetlands themselves, and there is no concern about endangered animals, according to city officials.

Environmental surveys have been conducted through the years, and the only potential endangered species on the property is the Indiana bat, because the property has been identified as a suitable habitat, said Emily Collins, strategic advisor to Mayor Dan Horrigan.

As a precaution, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit mandates that trees can’t be cleared in April through September, when the bats are roosting, she said. Any developer must abide by that permit.

The most recent environmental survey was done in 2015 and found no additional endangered species, Collins added.

Loar and Niekamp said a survey that old could contain outdated information. Niewiarowski, the University of Akron biologist, wants the area to be studied to determine the presence and potential impact of the species of amphibians he's seen.

There will not be a new survey before the proposed sale, Collins said.

Additionally, the city secured a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and has complied with other state and federal regulators since it bought the property, Collins said.

If the sale goes through, the permit will be transferred, and the developer would also have to abide by rules, including the tree-clearing limitations, she said.

Efforts will be made to preserve wetlands on the property, she said.

“We’re anticipating that those are going to be kept intact and conserved. And to the degree that, after the sale of the property, that the developer decides they want to do something else, which is within the realm of possibility, then they’re going to have to go back to the Army Corps of Engineers and start the assessment all over again,” Collins said.

There will be no net loss of wetlands, she said, because Akron purchased wetland mitigation credits when they intended to build the office park. That means the city bought a wetlands area in Copley, which has been restored and maintained, to offset any potential disruption of the White Pond wetlands.

Those credits now don’t have to be used for the housing project because the developer isn’t planning to fill in wetlands, she added.

“We purchased acreage there for the purpose of insuring preservation of wetlands and no reduction in the national wetlands inventory,” she said. “We think we’re doubling our conservation impact with this deal.”

Additionally, the city is not anticipating a net loss of trees because officials have a goal of planting at least 1,600 trees each year, she added.

Niewiarowski said the clearing of trees on the White Pond site will still gravely impact the wetlands ecosystem.

“That, essentially, is the same thing as removing a wetland, right, because these species breathe in those waterbodies, temporary or permanent, but the adults require the mature upland forest for the rest of their annual activities,” he said. “It’s the same thing as just paving over the wetland, with respect to their ability to exist there.”

Residents want a nature preserve

Aside from their wildlife concerns, Loar and Niekamp want to preserve the wetlands as a green space for the neighborhood.

With a little bit of tidying up, it could be a nature preserve, Loar said.

David Loar, Akron resident
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
David Loar, a resident of Akron, is one of the citizens opposed to a proposed housing development off of White Pond Drive.

While Niekamp and Loar said they are not entirely opposed to housing being built, they wish city officials would slow down and listen to residents’ concerns before City Council votes on it.

“During the pandemic, I know myself and many others, going outside in the trees and the wilderness was what saved me and kept me going. So I just see this as something that I can fight to keep that will be here for generations,” Niekamp said. “I don’t see the development as being something that really helps Akron residents. It’s overpriced, it’ll destroy habitats and it won’t bring joy to the neighborhood.”

Andrea_Niekamp_Akron.jpg
Anna Huntsman
/
Ideastream Public Media
Andrea Niekamp, a lifelong Akron resident, stands in front of one of the ponds in the vacant wooded area off of White Pond Drive. Niekamp is one of the residents that is speaking out against a proposed housing development there due to environmental concerns.

The rent for the proposed apartments would be market-rate, according to the proposal.

“More supply brings down the cost of everything for everybody,” said Vollman, the deputy mayor. “We are committed to affordable housing, but we need both. We need a mixture of all types of housing products so that we can appeal to everyone.”

Residents have also shared their concerns with city council about increased traffic in an already busy area. The Akron Metropolitan Area Transit Study (AMATS) and a traffic consultant hired by the developer are working on a traffic analysis, according to a city spokesperson.

City council members are reviewing the development proposal in the coming weeks and are expected to vote in early December.

Updated: November 22, 2022 at 9:56 AM EST
Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.