By Bruce Walton
After months of planning and deliberation, village council is nearing its third and final reading to approve a Poland Municipal Forest ordinance.
After getting a second reading May 16, the ordinance is up for approval at council’s Tuesday meeting.
The ordinance has stirred controversy, mainly with members of the environmental volunteer organization Friends of the Poland Municipal Forest. The organization is a group of volunteers who help keep the forest clean, provide labor for projects and organize educational programs.
“Someone needs to speak for the forest and if not us, who?” said Gordon Longmuir, president of the organization.
Poland Municipal Forest was established by village council in 1938. It combined a 150-acre land donation made by Grace Butler, a prominent Mahoning Valley civic leader and daughter-in-law of Butler Institute of American Art founder Joseph G. Butler Jr., with a 50-acre park.
The ordinance that established the municipal forest stipulated that it be “self-sustaining,” established a six-person board to manage it and assigned that board the task of organizing “the planting and cutting cycles of forest trees ... as to derive the maximum annual revenue from said forest” so as to “relieve the taxpayers the burden and expense of its upkeep and management.”
Funding of the forest has been a point of contention between village/forest officials and some community members in recent years. Officials at one point considered harvesting some forest trees for a profit, an idea that drew criticism from those who want the forest preserved in its natural state.
Last year, the forest board commissioned a plan by certified consulting forester Rick Miller, who recommended that the village establish a brand, logo and mission for the forest, and work to develop a long-range plan for its management.
He also spelled out several key objectives, such as reforestation and removal of invasive species, among others.
The plan was introduced earlier this year and met with suggestions from the community for more public input before its adoption.
After several meetings, including a joint meeting with the forest board, the council introduced the ordinance for its first reading May 2.
The proposed ordinance would repeal and replace the 1938 law.
The replacement would delegate management of the forest to a seven-member board, one of whom would be a member of village council.
As for funding the forest, the draft ordinance proposes a number of options, including: allowing the forest board to accept donations; allowing the forest board to conduct fundraising programs; and asking voters for a forest levy.
Friends of the Poland Municipal Forest agrees the 1938 ordinance must be replaced and the new ordinance is a vast improvement. But the group has concerns about language in parts of the law which it suggests could lead future council members to misinterpret the true purpose: to maintain and preserve the forest.
One of the complaints Longmuir brought to council at the May 16 meeting is the section that would penalize people who “intentionally damage, tamper with, alter or remove any natural or man-made element of the forest shall be considered in an act of criminal offense.” Possible offenders could also be cited or permanently prohibited from entering the property.
Longmuir said he understands the intention to protect the forest from vandalism, but the language seems so broad that volunteers of his organization could be penalized for cleaning or rearranging the forest after a storm.
Councilman Bill Dunnavant, who is involved in writing of the ordinance, told Longmuir that was unlikely for the ordinance to be abused like that.
“Maybe we did not do it thoroughly enough, but that’s certainly not our intent,” Dunnavant said.
The intent, he said, is to make sure the forest board is aware of what changes are made to the forest.
Other members of the organization spoke out against other parts of the ordinance, including funding and the potential makeup of the advisory board, which the council said are mostly mandates under state law.
Elinor Zedaker, president of the Poland Municipal Forest Board, believes the council has done all it can to bring the ordinance to the people. She suggests residents communicate with the council their thoughts on the ordinance as it nears the third and final reading.
Since the ordinance’s first reading, the bill has undergone numerous revisions which has caused some confusion for concerned and curious residents. The latest version of the ordinance is available at the Poland Village Town Hall.
Dunnavant said the language of the ordinance can be revised after its passage, something he’d be willing to consider depending on the public’s opinion. He also reiterated the ordinance will not be a rigid law and will be used as a guide toward managing the forest.