Title questions idle sale of former Austintown Middle School

Document gives descendants dibs on school land




Dr. Nancy King always knew her great-great-grandfather, John H. Fitch, was a generous community benefactor.

She didn’t know, however, about his land donation on Mahoning Avenue to the Austintown schools in 1915.

Dr. King, 60, of upstate New York, is learning more about her ancestor’s donation and the deeds that came with it 100 years ago.

There also is some learning going on among school board members.

Austintown schools Superintendent Vincent Colaluca said the former Austintown school’s status is idle now because what to do with it in the future is up to the board of education. Two new board members took office this year.

“We want to make sure that this current board wants to move forward with it,” Colaluca said.

Dr. King, a retired physician, is gathering more information.

“It dovetailed into my interest in tracking down my family history,” King said. But she added: “I have to get more facts.”

In 1915, Fitch and his wife, Alice, granted 8 acres to the Austintown school district. The district then erected a main school house and named it after Fitch.

In the warranty deed recorded by Fitch, he states the district has the right to sell the land if it is ever “unfit or unsuitable to be used for school purposes.” The proceeds of the sale should be invested “in some other suitable and desirable site within the limits of said Austintown Township ... for public school uses and purposes only, for the use and benefit of the people of Austintown Township and for no other use and purpose whatever.”

The warranty deed, which transfers the title from the rightful owner of the property, was not recorded until 1924. At the same time, a quit-claim deed for the property was also recorded. Minta Goode, Walter Goode, Stella King, John H. Fitch Jr. and Pearl Fitch had the quit deed recorded as heirs of John H. Fitch.

A quit claim deed, however, does not confirm the heir’s ownership of a property.

“This deed is given to clear up the title of the grantees [the school district] in this parcel of real estate, which is not now clear for the reason that John H. Fitch deeded the same to them [the district] in 1915. That said deed has as yet not been recorded, and that the record title of said parcel is now in these grantors as ... heirs of John H. Fitch,” the document states.

The heirs placed a reversionary clause in the deed that if the land “ceased to be used for school purposes,” the heirs reserve the right to reclaim the title to the premises.

Dr. King said she isn’t certain why the heirs placed the clause in a quit-claim deed and doubts she will ever find out. She is having an attorney look into the deeds and is uncertain of the future with the land.

The property was put up for sale in 2005 by the school district. Stan Watson, now Liberty schools superintendent, was the facilities director for Austintown at that time. The school district went through the law firm of Squire Sanders — a law firm that represents public and private entities. Descendants of the family were sought out at that time.

“I remember that we knew that [reversion] was in the clause,” Watson said. “The [law firm’s] opinion at the time was that because of the amount of time and because of the difficulty in finding [the family], the opinion was the property could be sold without restriction,” Watson said.

Insurance also was placed on the title so the district and the buyer would not be affected by the clause. The district asked for a $2.2 million minimum bid and two developers expressed an interest in the property.

Local developers Ben Post and Martin Soloman, who operate, This Land is My Land Ltd., offered $2.6 million for the property and a representative from CDC Development of Dallas, Texas, made an offer of $3 million, according to The Vindicator archives.

CDC was concerned about the asbestos in the building and about a problem with the title.

The district went with the local developers’ offer, but the deal never closed so the property went back to the district. Post and Soloman told The Vindicator in 2007 that they backed out because they felt the district violated state requirements for reports on underground fuel-storage tanks.

The developers’ attorney contacted the state fire marshal’s office about unacceptable levels of contamination on the property. The state directed the district to have the soil tested. But a letter from the Ohio EPA in 2010 stated no further testing was needed on the property, and it was deemed cleaned of contaminants.

Once again the land was sold in April 2013 to LRC Development Co. LLC. And once again the sale did not go through because the company did not execute the real-estate agreement. In August, the board of education voted to rescind the purchase agreement.

The issue of the revisionary clause in the deed came to light at an October school board meeting.

Lori Riley, a mother of an Austintown student, a Fitch graduate and an Austintown resident felt there had to be Fitch descendants left, so she researched and found a Fitch descendent within a few hours.

“The right thing to do is to find the heirs,” she said. “He [Fitch] has done so much for this community, and we need to respect that.”

Riley connected with township Trustee Lisa Oles and together they realized they both found a descendant, Dr. King, and gave her a call.

“I think Dr. King also has a fascination about finding out her family roots,” Oles said.

Dr. King said this has helped open the book on the Fitch family history.

“I knew they were related to the high school somehow and to Camp Fitch,” Dr. King said.

Fitch was the owner and operator of many companies in the Mahoning Valley including Fitch Grocery Store, Fitch Coffee Co., Youngstown Ice Co. and the Ohio Merchandise Co. He married Alice Packard and they had four children. A Fitch mausoleum stands in Belmont Park Cemetery, Liberty.

Dr. King visited the old Austintown Centralized School, as it was earlier known. “It’s an incredible history,” she said.

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