By Ed Runyan
Carol Wilson and her husband, Kenny, don’t feel that the efforts of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Attorney General’s office to collect $70,000 in fines from them are fair.
The Wilsons, who agreed to buy the Times Square Restaurant at state Routes 7 and 5 on land contract from Richard Thompson of Warren four years ago, have spent several years fixing up the restaurant that was opened in 1946. The Wilsons are due to complete the terms of the land contract in about a year and become the outright owners.
Carol Wilson, of Gustavus, says she grew up eating at the small diner and grew attached to it.
When the owner, Alice Blaemire, got older, the business fell into disrepair. Thompson bought the restaurant, along with Blaemire’s historical home a half-mile away, after Blaemire’s death.
“It’s roof was caving in,” Carol Wilson said of the restaurant.
One thing the Wilsons didn’t want to spend money on was a new septic system because of the new sewer line Trumbull County will bring to the business in the next year or two.
Eventually, the Wilsons relented and spent $21,000 to upgrade their system.
In October 2012, the Ohio Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court against the Wilsons and Thompson seeking civil penalties for their failure to alleviate an environmental hazard for more than two years.
The lawsuit sought up to $10,000 per day for the time period from July 2009 to October 2011, when the new septic system went online.
Carol Wilson says the state is willing to settle for $70,000, but she doesn’t believe there should be any fine.
“That’s a lot of money,” she said, adding that the costs associated with fixing up the restaurant and its septic system have prevented her and her husband from making any money on the restaurant the last two years.
“I bought a failing business that was in need of repair. I spent $60,000. I employ 14 people,” she said. “It’s old world. It’s a landmark,” she said.
Mark Moretti, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s office, said negotiations with the Times Square are ongoing, with the last discussions taking place two weeks ago.
He would not confirm that the state still wants $70,000 from the Times Square, only that the state had extended an offer to the restaurant two weeks ago, and the restaurant’s owner had responded to the offer.
Moretti said the state has sought payment of a fine because the EPA did have to work a certain amount of time with the restaurant before compliance was achieved, adding that the ultimate goal is for the business to take the right steps “where the environment is concerned.”
The EPA’s complaint says it inspected the septic system there Nov. 14, 2008, and again April 27, 2010, and found it discharging objectionable substances. The restaurant also operated without a valid septic-system permit starting in 2006, about two years before Thompson bought the restaurant.
As for environmental damage, Wilson said she and her husband paid a Howland company called Valley Environmental to monitor the outflow of waste from the restaurant during the years before the new septic system was complete. The Wilsons also pumped the sewage tanks one or two times per month.
“Everything we were told to do, we did,” she said. “If it was that bad of a discharge they would have shut us down,” she said of the EPA.
Because they use well water at the restaurant, it is tested every three months, and those tests were always good, she noted.
Wilson said she contacted several state and federal legislators, but none of that has helped. Only Trumbull County Commissioner Frank Fuda has shown an interest in helping, she said.
Rex Fee, executive director of the Trumbull County Sanitary Engineer’s Office, said he doesn’t understand why the EPA would insist on payment of fines from the Wilsons or even why it demanded a new septic system for the restaurant, given the short time span before sewers will serve the business.
A public hearing for the estimated $10.6 million Phase 2 Kinsman sewer project will be later this month, and it’s expected that the construction will begin sometime this year. It will take about one year to complete.
It will serve Kinsman Square and the more populated areas of Kinsman Township, including the Times Square Restaurant.
Thompson was instrumental in getting the first phase of the sewer project completed, because he and his business partners turned over the former Kraft dairy plant in Kinsman and some property to the county at a reasonable cost so that it could be used to build a treatment plant.
“He was pivotal in putting that all together,” Fee said. “He’s been a definite player in getting this going. He’s a good guy.”
As for the restaurant, Fee said he doesn’t understand why the EPA required it to upgrade its septic system knowing that the sewers were coming.
“They knew we were moving ahead with this sewer, so why cause grief for a single business?” he said.
Fee agrees with Carol Wilson’s assessment that other Kinsman businesses were left alone.
Likewise, Fee said he doesn’t understand the EPA’s requirement that Mathews High School in Vienna upgrade its septic system in 2012 at a cost of well over $100,000 when Fee’s office is moving head with Phase 4 of the Squaw Creek sewer system, which will serve Mathews High School in 12 to 18 months.
Fee said his office has a track record of completing sewer projects on time, so the state should not have had concerns about the certainty that the problems with wastewater at the school would be resolved in a reasonable time frame.