Even at first glance, the Crawford County Planning Commission meeting held Monday looked different than usual: It was well-attended by more than a half-dozen audience members with another participating remotely.
Concerns about changes underway at Conneaut Lake Park had drawn them to the meeting at the Crawford County Courthouse in search of government officials willing and able to intervene.
Before they had a chance to voice those concerns, however, commission Chair Maria Anderson Dreese made it clear they were likely to be disappointed.
“We understand that a lot of folks coming here today to join us may have some comments to offer about Conneaut Lake Park,” Dreese said after describing the commission as an advisory board rather than one with executive authority. “I just ask that you understand that we may not be the correct entity to make any decision or provide specific comment back to you today, but we certainly will hear your concerns.”
The concerns raised by five speakers were clear: The amusement park that audience members grew up enjoying or that, more recently, they moved to be near, is being transformed into something quite different and there seems to be little that can be done to stop, alter or even impact that process.
“There’s a great tragedy happening over at Conneaut Lake and it has to do with the demise of Conneaut Lake Park,” Gloria Novak of Conneaut Lake told the commission. “Something that has been a historic part of our lives for 128 years is being demolished and it shouldn’t be.
“Trying to restore it to its former glory is what we were told was going to happen,” she continued, “and we were lied to.”
Discussion of Conneaut Lake Park and its future had not been planned as part of the commission’s monthly meeting. The occasion for the comments from the public was the inclusion on the meeting’s agenda of a letter to Todd Joseph, whose limited liability company Keldon Holdings LLC purchased the historic park in March.
The letter, from a lawyer representing former park owner Gary Harris, was submitted to the commission and to officials at Sadsbury and Summit townships, where the park is located, according to Zachary Norwood, director of the Crawford County Planning Office. Such communications are listed on meeting agendas as formal acknowledgement that they have been received.
“Because it is on our agenda, we have to allow folks to speak,” Norwood said before the meeting.
The letter states that the park land should remain open to the public and asserts that Joseph intends to subdivide the property and sell private lots. Kevin Shannon, Harris’s lawyer, said the letter had been sent to Joseph in late July and again this week.
“I have not heard anything back,” Shannon said in an email.
The meeting’s agenda also included brief mention of the Crawford County Planning Office’s reviews of minor property subdivisions. Although none of the subdivisions were discussed in specific terms, among them were two involving land owned by Joseph and associated with the park, according to Norwood.
One subdivision would separate the 32 acres of land that is now the location of Conneaut Lake Park Camperland, near the intersection of Reed Avenue and Route 618, from the main parcel of land that forms the park, Norwood said. The other would form separate parcels totaling approximately 2 acres, with each parcel associated with an existing building in the park and one the location of the water tower.
Norwood said the planning office’s review of the proposed subdivisions had been sent to Summit and Sadsbury townships earlier this month. The review compared the subdivision to the guidelines set by the county’s comprehensive plan as well as the respective municipality’s local ordinances and found that they complied in all significant respects, according to Norwood. As for the future of the park, Norwood, like Dreese, stressed that the office plays an advisory role that allows it no control in such a situation.
“I would say that our hands are pretty tied,” Norwood said. “Crawford County has taken the stance that land-use regulations should rely at the local level currently, so if there was to be a requirement, it would come from the local municipalities.”
But a lawyer for one of those municipalities said that in such a situation, local governments have little recourse as well. Brian Cagle, the attorney for Summit Township, found himself making a similar point at the most recent township meeting when people upset about Joseph’s actions at the park expressed their concerns.
“They were somewhat upset the township wasn’t doing more to stop Keldon Holdings in its plans,” Cagle recalled in an interview Monday. “I tried to explain that the township is very limited in what it can do. The township has to follow its ordinance.”
As long as subdivision requests such as the ones made by Keldon Holdings comply with the ordinance, they have to be granted, according to Cagle.
If local ordinances leave supervisors with little discretion, there’s also little those at the top levels of county government can do, according to county Commissioner Francis Weiderspahn, who attended the Planning Commission meeting on Monday. Commissioner Chairman Eric Henry was also in the audience.
“There isn’t anything that we can do” regarding the concerns raised about Conneaut Lake Park, Weiderspahn said after the meeting.
The unlikely prospect that those at the meeting would be able to address concerns about the park raises the question of why Harris sought the forum to share his letter to Joseph.
“I thought it was good to get our position out in the public domain,” Shannon, Harris’s lawyer, said after the meeting. While no action resulted from the meeting, he added, it demonstrated the strength of community support for maintaining the park in a style similar to its past form.
“These people grew up with Conneaut Lake Park. It’s ingrained in their hearts, so to speak, and they really treasure that place,” Shannon said. “There’s been a big public groundswell, we think, for taking a look at these issues critically and ensuring that Conneaut Lake Park remains open to the public as intended by Mr. Harris.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.