COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A neighborhood association has filed a lawsuit against Gahanna, alleging the city wrongly brokered a secret deal with a project developer.

The lawsuit, filed last week in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, stems from tree-clearing for a commercial construction project — originally denied by a city board in 2018  — on five acres of land on the corner of Beecher and North Hamilton roads. 

Construction project preparations began in March

Members of the Academy Ridge Community Association, the neighborhood organization for a bordering subdivision, noticed that a bulldozer materialized at 1041 N. Hamilton Rd on March 8. Then, trees started coming down, according to court records.

In the lawsuit, board member and resident Jane Peck and the association allege that in the following five days, several members “reached out to Gahanna to learn what was taking place, and were repeatedly told by Gahanna officials that no one knew,” according to court records. 

But on March 13, Gahanna City Attorney Ray Mularski emailed one board member details of a May 2022 settlement agreement reached between the city and the owner of the land. Residents living along the project’s border had been unaware of that agreement, the lawsuit alleges.

Back-and-forth over commercial project goes back years

Sketches for the eventual project at 1041 N. Hamilton Rd. show a shopping center with a surface parking lot in front.

But the city’s board of zoning and building appeals rejected that proposal in the spring of 2018, reversing a decision by the city’s planning commission and halting progress on the project.

About a year later, property owner Academy Development LP submitted applications to pursue a similar project — which the planning commission again voted through and, in early 2020, the appeals board again denied. 

In both cases, the Academy Ridge Community Association objected to the plans for projects. 

Settlement reached in May 2022, court records show

After the 2020 denial, Academy Development filed an appeal in Franklin County court and threatened Gahanna with a federal lawsuit, according to Mularski and court documents. It argued the appeals board, and by extension, the city, was “unlawful” and “arbitrary” in denying its attempts at pursuing commercial projects. 

This resulted in a settlement — signed off by Mularski — that enabled Academy Development to use most of its 2017 proposal.

Mularski wrote in an email statement Monday that the city “carefully evaluated its options … and settled the claims raised by the developer of that property in good faith and with the best interests of the city and all of its citizens in mind.”

But plaintiff attorney Jesse Kanitz of Williams and Strohm said he believes Peck and other association members — who thought they were successful in permanently halting the project in 2020 — were left in the dark about a settlement reached behind closed doors on the project without any public notice or discussion. 

“From a public policy standpoint, that should concern a lot of the citizens in Gahanna,” Kanitz said in an interview. “That’s a dangerous precedent.” 

Academy Development purchased the parcel in August 2013, according to Franklin County auditor’s records. William Schottenstein — who signed the settlement on behalf of Academy Development — could not be reached for comment by Monday night. 

The project is the second this year under public scrutiny from some Gahanna residents. In late March, the city announced that gas station and convenience store chain Sheetz would not move forward with a proposed location near the intersection of Johnstown and Morse roads.

Gahanna city governmental bodies had gone back and forth over that project since 2022 before, in part, a public outcry brought an end to the project.