By JOY BROWN
While an influential business contingent vocally supports traffic and parking changes in downtown Findlay, a small, but developing, opposition is quietly researching whether the matter could be decided at the polls, The Courier has learned.
City Council’s April 1 meeting could be a barometer. Members are scheduled to consider legislation authorizing Mayor Lydia Mihalik to apply for a $2 million grant for the estimated $3.3 million project.
That grant “cannot fund everything that we want to do,” including work on alternate routes to help through traffic bypass Main Street, said Tim Mayle, assistant economic development director for the pro-business Findlay-Hancock County Alliance.
Although project proponents said applying for the grant does not mean the plan is complete, it is a start.
They say public opinion continues to be gathered, and pledge to change and refine the original rough draft introduced earlier this month.
Also, they said, the project would continue to evolve further as design work progresses and funding sources become definite.
The state’s Transportation Alternatives Program 2014 grant application requires specifics, such as a “detailed estimate of construction cost certified by professional engineer or architect,” employment data for those living within one mile of the project, and average daily traffic totals.
The application also mandates that the scope of the project be the same as what Findlay submitted in a February “letter of interest” to the Ohio Department of Transportation.
On Main Street, that included reverse-angle parking on both sides of certain blocks, and traffic lanes reduced to one in each direction.
It also included a bicycle lane along Cory Street from West Main Cross Street to the University of Findlay.
Mayle said those specifics remain conceptual and subject to revision. He said there would be “total design flexibility” when working with the state.
“We’ve heard a lot of public input and we’ve adapted to that,” Mayle said.
“Our next step is to revise the concept based on public input” and introduce it to City Council, said Maria Reza, the Alliance’s downtown coordinator.
But criticism of some of the initial ideas has mounted, in part because of a lack of a public forum that would allow commenting and conversing with project organizers in front of a crowd.
Such discourse has been permitted at information sessions tailored to smaller groups and service clubs, where attendees have generally been supportive of the plans.
Another public “open house,” scheduled for 4:30 p.m. today at the Findlay Inn and Conference Center, will have a similar format as a general public meeting held March 12.
Mayle said people will be encouraged to talk one-on-one with engineers, and to submit questions and comments in writing.
Public input on a project is integral to the state’s decision-making, but does not necessarily make or break a project, said Rhonda Pees, ODOT public communications officer.
“Public input always plays a role in projects. It’s important in gaining valuable insight from those most affected by a project,” Pees said.
“But the decision to award funding is primarily influenced by the quality of the project, how well it meets the criteria of the funding being sought, and how well it competes against other projects in the state vying for the same funding,” she said.
“Should the city be granted the (Transportation Alternatives Program) funding, they would be required to follow the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires public input whenever federal funding is involved in a project,” she said. The grant would be federal money, funneled through the state.
“The NEPA process requires alternatives be developed to address the purpose and need of the project. Once the alternatives have been developed, the public is then asked to comment in order to arrive at a preferred alternative,” she said.
The grant application deadline is May 4, and award notifications will be made in mid-August, the state said.
City administrators said they will introduce legislation to City Council on April 1 that will ask for permission to apply for the grant. If council consents, and the city is eventually awarded money, more legislation will follow as the project advances through planning and construction in conjunction with the state.
Repealing legislation that City Council approves is possible, but only to a certain extent.
“Any resolution or ordinance that is passed without an emergency clause is subject to referendum petition within the 30-day period prior to its effective date,” said city Law Director Don Rasmussen.
But legislation passed by emergency, which means the law goes into immediate effect, is not subject to such a repeal, he said.
A referendum petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of the number of voters in the municipality who voted for governor in the most recent general election, according to state law.
Referendum petitions can only be placed on the ballot in general elections, and are subject to filing deadlines, Rasmussen said.
When asked if a referendum effort could influence the awarding of a grant to Findlay, Pees reiterated that the city’s application, if submitted, would be judged on the merits of the project when weighed against other Ohio communities seeking money.
“Any controversy would have no effect on our decision to award or not award” funds, she said.
“As long as the sponsoring agency has the authority to develop and construct the project, the project would remain eligible for funding with that money,” she said.
Findlay voters have overridden City Council before.
Voters in 2008 repealed council’s 2007 ordinance granting permission for the city to contract with a Kentucky-based developer who wanted to build a proposed $90 million mixed-use RiverPlace project on the former Brandman dump along the Blanchard River.
A group of citizens, concerned that the project could worsen flooding, put the issue on the ballot by collecting 1,613 signatures, 400 more than needed.
The ballot issue required City Council to seek approval from citizens before any building occurred on the Brandman property, and prohibited speedy passage of any legislation that had to do with building on the site.
But in a twist, council repealed the voters’ repeal.
In a 5-4 vote, council in May 2010 overturned the section that limited how the land could be used and required voter approval before any building could occur there.
Council members who voted favorably said they did so to allow for future flood-control construction. At the time, Army Corps of Engineers’ conceptual plans envisioned a levee atop an old railroad right of way along the Blanchard River.
“If the votes cast for you were disregarded by some authority, you may call that an act of tyranny,” Findlay attorney John Kostyo told council members before they voted that night.
“It must then be asked of you, if you disregard the votes of 56 percent of the voters, people who approved the RiverPlace ordinance, you make yourselves tyrants. It is time for each of you to declare who you are, representatives or tyrants,” Kostyo said.