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Horse farm owner is suing Streetsboro to get property rezoned for dense residential neighborhood

By Paula Schleis
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Sahbra Farms Inc., owned by David Gross, filed a complaint in Portage County Common Pleas Court over the R-R zoning classification of his property along state Route 14 and Diagonal Road. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal)

The owner of a struggling horse farm in Streetsboro says the city’s “unconstitutional” zoning laws are stopping him from turning his 290-acre property into a dense-housing neighborhood, costing him $35 million.

Sahbra Farms Inc., owned by David Gross, filed a complaint in Portage County Common Pleas Court over the rural residential zoning classification of his property along state Route 14 and Diagonal Road, which “does not allow any economically viable use” and runs contrary to the city’s own master plan for that area.

The horse farm has been in operation since 1988, but the market for boarding, training and breeding horses went into substantial decline in the late 1990s, and the company has operated at a loss for 10 years now, the complaint says.

The owner has been trying to find another use for the property.

Agricultural farming isn’t a likely option due to current “market realities,” the complaint says, and the owner has been unable to attract interest from oil and gas well developers.

The existing R-R classification allows for cemeteries, parks, playgrounds, public utilities, private recreational facilities, schools, churches and government buildings, but none of those uses are “reasonably, practically, economically or legally available for development of the property,” the complaint says.

That leaves residential development.

The R-R designation refers to “Rural Residential Zoning District,” meaning the city intended it for single-family residential use in order to preserve the rural character of the area.

That would limit the Sahbra property to one house per 1.5 acres, for a maximum of 165 residential units.

“The cost and associated risk of installing street and utility infrastructure to service 165 units... exceeds any reasonably expected benefit of residential development under those terms,” according to the complaint.

Sahbra argues that in asking for a zone change to allow more dense housing, it’s only asking for what the city was supposed to do anyway.

In 2009, City Council adopted a Comprehensive Land Use Plan that suggested the Sahbra property would be an ideal location for a traditional mixed-use neighborhood, with as many as 10 dwelling units per acre.

But council never voted to change the zoning code that would have allowed the plan to be implemented, in part because neighbors complained about the density issue.

Sahbra is also arguing that the city imposed a moratorium on zoning changes until a comprehensive plan is implemented, then made exceptions and rezoned some R-R properties in other areas of the city.

“The disparity in treatment of individual land owners is further evidence of the arbitrary land use classification applied to the [Sahbra] property,” the complaint says.

The city has already settled a handful of lawsuits over zoning issues in recent years, including $4.6 million and $1.1 million payouts in 2007 and 2008.

And in 2008, a taxpayer suit resulted in the court mandating that the city engage in a new comprehensive master planning process to address what the Sahbra suit calls the “haphazard and disorderly reclassification of property” within the city.

The city has not complied with that order, the suit says.

If the Sahbra property was rezoned as the 2009 Comprehensive Land Use Plan suggested, the fair market value of the property would be in excess of $35 million, according to the landowner.

Mayor Glenn Broska said he couldn’t comment on the pending litigation, but that the law department is currently looking over the 213-page filing and “the city is going to aggressively defend itself.”

Sahbra’s attorney, Jack Morrison, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com.