By Jordyn Grzelewski
Residents who have advocated in the past for preserving Poland Municipal Forest in its natural state are raising concerns about a project in the woods.
The Mahoning County Sanitary Engineering Department is overseeing a project to replace a 24-inch sanitary-sewer line in the forest into which numerous commercial and residential properties tie.
Work is underway within the county easement off College Lane, under a path known as Gutknecht Trail. The project required clearing trees from the area, which was heavily forested.
Critics of the project say they are concerned about the project’s impact on the forest, as well as what they say was a lack of opportunity for public input before the venture began.
“We’re not denying that this has to be done,” said Gordon Longmuir, president of the Friends of the Poland Municipal Forest, a nonprofit volunteer organization.
“But have some sensitivity of the value of the forest,” added Lauren Schroeder, a Youngstown State University biology professor emeritus.
Village officials pointed out the project largely is out of their control. County Engineer Patrick Ginnetti expressed understanding for critics’ protectiveness of the forest, but emphasized the necessity of the project.
“We’re trying to improve the public health and safety of the area by replacing the line,” he said.
The first phase of the sanitary-sewer line replacement began in 2014, under Lower McKinley Trail, which abuts Interstate 680.
Those who are concerned about the current project say they were satisfied with how the first phase was handled. Some of their suggestions were taken into consideration at that time, and they are for the most part happy with how the area was restored.
This time around, they are not as pleased.
“What happened between phase one and phase two? Phase one, there was inclusion,” Longmuir said. “This phase has just been all in the dark.”
The group says it is dissatisfied with the village’s communications with residents on phase two.
“The government should communicate to the governed. The county should communicate to the village. The village should communicate to the citizens,” said Schroeder. “That broke down.”
Village Mayor Tim Sicafuse, however, said he believes the communication between the county and village was adequate, and numerous meetings between county and village representatives took place.
“Everyone acts like this was all done in secret and nobody knew about it until it started in January. But the forest board knew about it” last summer, Sicafuse said.
Critics said the village should have had public hearings, but Sicafuse disagrees because it is not the village’s project.
“Again, it’s not our project. We can have meeting after meeting, and whoever wants to talk about it can,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I can’t tell you how to paint your house, because it’s your house.”
Longmuir, Schroeder and others also said they are concerned about the long-term impact the line replacement will have on the forest.
For one thing, they are opposed to plans to turn the trail into a gravel access road. Ginnetti said the access road was overgrown, and the county needs it to access the sewer for any maintenance work.
Those who are speaking out suggest the trail instead be surfaced with soil.
They also suggest that the restoration process use native species that are not “intrusive” or “disruptive,” which Sicafuse said would be considered.
Ginnetti said the restoration process will be similar to what was done during phase one, which was completed by the same contractor, JS Bova Excavating.
“It’ll be a nice project when it’s finished,” Ginnetti said.
Critics also questioned what happened to the trees cleared from the area. Ginnetti said he is not sure how they were disposed of, but the contractor took them off-site and the timber belongs to the contractor.
Along with suggestions for the restoration, those who are concerned about the project asked that the village handle future projects more openly, especially given the expertise some of them bring to the table.
Among the group, for example, is Randy Jones, a lifelong user of the forest, former longtime forest board member, and retired naturalist.
“They just don’t seem to want to take input from people who have some significant knowledge,” Longmuir said. “We’re frustrated because there’s nobody listening.”