HOWLAND — A federal court battle to protect more than a dozen acres of wetlands in the township from Cafaro Co.’s plans for a new sprawling medical complex was characterized as a “David and Goliath fight” by a local environmental advocate.
On Thursday, however, Youngstown federal court Judge Benita Pearson ruled in favor of “David," vacating a permit to build on the township’s Mosquito Creek Wetlands previously issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and citing the Corps’ use of "faulty" population data collected from Warren County, rather than the city of Warren, which are on opposing sides of the state.
Cafaro Co., through subsidiary North Eastwood LLC, had planned its proposed Enterprise Park at Eastwood for more than 100 acres of forest and wetlands along the Mosquito Creek corridor, just north of the Eastwood Mall Complex, and obtained permits from the Ohio EPA and Corps in 2019.
As previously reported by Mahoning Matters, Cafaro Co. spokesperson Joe Bell said Mercy Health was “on-board” to conceptualize a new, full-service hospital at Enterprise Park, having now outgrown Warren’s St. Joseph Hospital along Eastland Avenue Southeast. Various other health care, residential or retail enterprises — such as a medical education facility; an elder-care facility; medical offices; or other residential or office space — were also planned for the site, he said.
Cafaro Co. projected the complex would create 2,200 new jobs and generate millions of dollars in wage or property taxes from the park’s for-profit tenants, Bell said.
The nonprofit Friends of the Mahoning River challenged that Army Corps permit in federal court in 2019. Conservationists said the Mosquito Creek Wetlands help filter the Mahoning River downstream and mitigate flooding, and are home to various flora and fauna.
“The Mosquito Creek Wetlands are one of the few remaining pristine urban wetlands in Ohio, and indeed anywhere in the country,” Tom Smith, board chairperson of Friends of the Mahoning River, is quoted in a Friday news release. “These wetlands serve many vital functions, from flood control, to safeguarding water quality, to preserving the biodiversity of our region. The court’s decision vindicates what we have been saying for years: because of surrounding socioeconomic factors and because of the critical ecological value of the wetlands that would be destroyed, this is simply an inappropriate site for this type of development, no matter what health care company might have occupied the site.”
Pearson, in an opinion issued Thursday, noted though the Corps found no other “practical” sites for the complex, it did not conduct its own review of the project’s economic viability or its financial projections, which came from the Cafaro Co. subsidiary North Eastwood.
Pearson ultimately agreed with conservationists’ argument that the Corps’ backing of the project was led by results, rather than the public interest.
Pearson also found the Corps’ analysis of the project relied on “faulty” population data.
"The most glaring issue with the Corps’ analysis is that it has not properly established that it is in the public interest to authorize a project that involves the construction of massive hospital and residential facilities with a declining population in the area. Many factors, including many large businesses leaving the area, have led the population of this specific area of Trumbull County to decline even more than in surrounding counties.
"Initially, the Corps erroneously concluded that that population in the area was increasing, and relied on that finding to show that there was a public need for the project. However, the Corps now concedes that the population is affirmatively in decline, and that it erroneously relied on now concededly inaccurate statements made by [North Eastwood], and 'data from Warren County instead of from the town of Warren.'
"The town of Warren is not in, or geographically near, Warren County,” Pearson wrote — in fact, it’s a nearly four-hour drive away, in southwestern Ohio.
Bell told Mahoning Matters the company had just learned about the ruling Friday afternoon, and the company was not prepared to comment.
The case has been remanded for further proceedings.
Thursday’s court filing reveals two other potential locations for the complex, which the Corps reviewed but ultimately dismissed as impractical.
One such alternative involved an expansion of Mercy Health’s St. Joseph Warren Hospital along Eastland Avenue Southeast to include a new “four-story tower, a new cardiac laboratory, a new ICU unit and a new 32-bed all single-occupancy unit above a new emergency department,” according to the filing.
This alternative wouldn’t have required any new building and cost up to 15 percent less than the Mosquito Creek proposal. It also would have had “substantially” less environmental impact. However, it would have required about 16 acres of wetland and 1,600 linear feet of stream to be filled — nearly identical to the Mosquito Creek proposal, the filing states.
The U.S. EPA, however, argued North Eastwood’s purpose for this site — “creating an attractive facility and competing economically with area hospitals” — was “too narrow” to fit with guidelines for identifying a plan with the least environmental impact. Akron Children’s Hospital “expressed interest” in the site for future use, but doesn’t have “a current need” for it, according to the filing.
North Eastwood’s response asserted the need for a “bigger, better and more appealing hospital” to serve the population, but that was undermined by the erroneous population figures used, the judge wrote.
“North Eastwood has repeatedly endeavored to convince commenters, the Corps and the court that its references to making a facility that is more ‘appealing’ or ‘attractive’ to ‘aesthetic’ concerns generally should not be construed as only concerned with the facility’s visual appeal,” reads a footnote in the Friday filing. “If North Eastwood intends to refer to something other than visual considerations, it should use words that make plain its meaning, rather than contorting the definitions of words after the fact.”
Another proposed site was the Old Avalon Golf Course along East Market Street in Warren, which has enough acreage for the project. But the site has no direct access road, nor are there exit ramps from state Routes 82 and 11.
North Eastwood submitted its preferred Enterprise Park site would see average daily traffic increase from about 5,200 vehicles per day at the existing St. Joseph Warren Hospital, to 115,000 vehicles per day.
“Neither [North Eastwood] nor the Corps explains why this level of extraordinary increase is necessary for an alternate site to be considered practical,” Judge Pearson wrote.