BOLIVAR Ohio - When Howard Wenger purchased 181 acres from Lawrence Township nearly a decade ago, he had big plans for the property. It was going to serve as a sand-and-gravel pit that would create aggregates for his company, Massillon Materials.
In 2012, he purchased an additional 65 acres in Bolivar to gain access to state Route 212. His $1.1 million purchase was welcomed by the Bolivar Village Council, as it both freed the village of debt, and provided a surplus of revenue to the tune of $400,000.
Wenger hadn't expected the reaction that followed. In November, Bolivar residents passed an initiative, 238-158, to rezone his property from sand-and-gravel use to agricultural use only, after some residents and four strong opponents from Lawrence Township argued with village council for nearly a year.
"We had no idea it was going to upset that many people," Wenger said. "It's been real disappointing."
Wenger said he isn't sure what his next step will be, only that things are now very uncertain for his business venture. And Bolivar Mayor Rebecca Hubble believes the village has an uncertain future as well.
Wenger said he purchased the property because it was advertised for sand and gravel due to its location along a river, one of the few places sand and gravel can be found.
Although locations for the aggregates can be hard to locate, its uses are widespread, Wenger said.
"On average, 2,800 pounds of aggregate are used per person," he said, noting that they are used in roads, bridges, sewer systems — and even toothpaste. "It's a product that if we were not to have sand and gravel we would not have many of the conveniences we have today."
In fact his family-owned businesses have been responsible for paving the new interchange at Exit 85 off Interstate 77 in at Dover as well as widening six lanes of I-77 in Canton through Akron-Canton Airport.
In addition to the projects he has completed, Wenger, believed he could offer a lot to the communities he served.
"I've always been a good neighbor. I've always been a good supporter of any community events and political subdivision I worked in whether it be city, township or village," he said.
Directly, the site was going to create 10 to 12 jobs he said, not including the 60 to 100 truck drivers coming in and out of the area for a while. Property taxes would be paid to Lawrence Township and income taxes would have gone to Bolivar, providing additional revenue.
Wenger said there were a lot of misconceptions and rumors that were spread about his operation, and not a lot of understanding about why sand and gravel is necessary. He said many Bolivar residents believed the adjacent property he purchased in Bolivar would be used for sand and gravel, which was untrue. He said he purchased the adjacent property to have access to state Route 212.
He said several people argued the trucks would be harmful to their health, but he was confused as to how, since 212 is already very busy and there are 5,000 trucks on I-77 right beside the village. He said no chemicals are used to remove sand and gravel and the water system would be fine.
"I hired competent people to try to quell that rumor but the seed was sown and it was hard to turn it around," he said.
IMPACT TO THE VILLAGE
The property was rezoned anyway, which means the village will have to place planned projects on hold, said Mayor Hubble.
Before the purchase, Hubble said the council was barely able to cover the $100,000 annual land payment. After the purchase, the council was planning to go ahead with a downtown beautification project, that members believed would improve the local economy.
The project was going to involve canal lights, streetscapes and other additives to make Bolivar appear more like a canal town, Hubble said.
"It would have been very beautiful," she said, adding that the village was also going to connect the Towpath Trail to the recently completed bridge in Stark County, connecting the trail.
With the improved downtown, and a connection with the trail, Hubble said the belief was that more tourists would be attracted to Bolivar. And with the tourists, she expected more small businesses to join the area.
"But because of the way the vote has went, we put it all on hold indefinitely until we see what's going to happen," she said.
The other big project at stake is replacing the waterlines. Noting that the waterlines in Bolivar are very aged, Hubble said it would cost millions to replace everything. She said the village is not eligible for grant funding, but being debt free, having an additional $100,000 a year, and additional income tax revenue in village coffers would have allowed the council to put money aside to replace the waterlines slowly.
"Our intentions were, in the spring, when the weather broke, to begin replacing the waterlines one at a time," she said.
"Until now we were debt free. We still are debt free but that all could change in a minute," she said. "Mr. Wenger has options."
And because those legal options are vast and could cost the village a lot of money in attorney and court fees, Hubble said all projects will be postponed indefinitely.
"Basically, we are trying to scale back, and trying to be very good stewards of what money we have," Hubble said.