What the Struggle to Protect the Millikin Forest Laid Bare

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We need leadership that can see the forest for the trees.

This morning I went out to MetroHealth to watch, with heartbreak, as construction crews began the process of taking down a swath of the Millikin Forest, which, over the years, has been felled bit by bit with the never-ending demand of suburban development.

After watching last week’s special City Council meeting on the MetroHealth expansion plans, I was reminded of a few truths.

Value commitments without legislation and enforcement are meaningless.

Cleveland Heights has made a commitment to sustainability in its much-touted Master Plan. Protecting and regenerating our tree canopy is part of that plan. Yet there were no city codes or zoning regulations in place to protect this forest and wetlands. MetroHealth’s plans were within the bounds of what our city allows—in fact, they could have been more aggressive but minimized their plans to encroach upon the forest for the sake of community relations.

Two Council members even commented that the forest is on MetroHealth’s private property, so technically, they argued, MetroHealth can do what they want with it. Yet we know it’s not true that property owners can do—or not do—whatever they want with their own property. For example, there are zoning regulations and housing codes and an Architectural Board of Review to ensure that property owners’ choices do not negatively impact their neighbors.

The city can—and does—define what is in the best interest of the public good and creates regulations to protect and promote that. Now we just need our city government to include the health of our environment in its definition of the public good—and legislate accordingly.

Public input, if truly valued, needs to begin early, especially on major projects.

Over and over again, major development projects have been concepted, planned, and designed in closed rooms, with no seat at the table for community input. And over and over again, when the plans are (quietly) made public, the residents who are tuned in spread the word, and people react negatively—because what has been set in motion is not what we want.

Our decision-making processes aren’t working for us. And yet we keep doing things the same way. Over and over again. Not just major projects, but also how we administer city services and interact with our community. The result is developments most residents don’t want, city services that aren’t serving us as well as they should, and a City Hall that is frustrating to engage with when we need anything.

Many residents feel that our government is, at best, indifferent to our residents’ preferences and needs and, at worst, contemptuous of our voices and input. While our decision-making processes need a massive overhaul if we are to create a local government that actually represents its people, that needs to be accompanied by a major culture shift in how City Hall engages with its residents.

Knowledge and expertise need to inform and guide all of our decisions.

At the special City Council meeting to discuss the MetroHealth expansion, there were two hours of public comments, with over 100 people offering expertise and insight to our Council members about the critical importance of preserving all of this forest and wetlands.

Community members educated in matters of sustainability told Council about the difference between wetlands and greenspace, between old-growth forest and simply trees (particularly new trees planted apart from each other), between complex ecosystems and landscaping. Yet when the time for comments was concluded (before all public comments had been read), all but one member (Council Vice President Seren) continued to refer to the plans as simply cutting down trees that would be replaced with others. They did not take in the expertise that was presented.

Throughout Cleveland Heights we see yard signs saying, “WE BELIEVE . . .” and on the following list is “SCIENCE IS REAL.” If this truly is a guiding value of our community, then we must demand that our policymakers understand the limits of their own scientific knowledge and be willing to listen and learn when they are called to make decisions for which scientific understanding is needed.

We have a lot of people talking about the need to attract new residents. And I agree—we do. But first, we need to stop the slow decline of our population. We need to understand why people aren’t staying. And there are many reasons for this (property taxes are cited much of the time), but let’s begin by making sure that our local government truly reflects the needs, wishes, and values of our current residents.

Until the people who are here feel heard, cared about, and respected, we will continue down the path we’re on.