reviewed College, township battle over proposed annex

Doug Brown

In front of county commissioners in Ravenna on Friday, about two dozen Hiram Township residents battled to protect their rural land and country lifestyle from a proposed retirement community on 140 acres of undeveloped township territory owned by Hiram College.

The clash pits a growing college led by a business-oriented president against residents who want to keep the rolling hills of Hiram Township from development. “I chose to live in an area where my kids could grow and run and ride their bikes,” says Aline Koptis, a 1985 graduate of Hiram College whose family moved to the township when she was a child. “If people come to Hiram and expect to have city amenities then they should’ve stayed in the city that they were living in.

The Portage County Board of Commissioners will soon be ruling on the petition from the college, led by President Thomas Chema, as the college attempts to annex the land to their campus in Hiram Village and develop a 120-unit retirement community on 88 of the acres, while preserving the rest for conservation. Allowing denser residency, village zoning regulations would accommodate the proposed community, while township zoning regulations would only permit 30 residential units in the same amount of land.

Three township trustees and their lawyer have been battling with representatives and lawyers from the college in front of county board of commissioners in six hearings since January 24. The three county commissioners will likely give their verdict within 30 days after the next hearing on March 8, deciding whether the benefits to the territory and surrounding areas outweigh detriments.


Tom Chema is a businessman with a Harvard law degree. In the 1980’s he served as executive Director of the Ohio Lottery Commission and then the Ohio Public Utilities Commission. In 1990 he became the executive director of Gateway Economic Development, and developed the area in downtown Cleveland featuring the Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive field, home to the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA and Cleveland Indians of the MLB, respectively.

Since Chema became president of Hiram College in 2003, the private liberal arts college has experienced substantial growth, in both enrollment (which has increased about 50% to more than 1,300 students) and facilities. Among the additions were a $12 million recreation center in 2005, a $7 million residence hall and entrepreneurship center in 2008, and $5 million for a new cafeteria and student townhouses in 2009.

The retirement community is the next major project proposed by Chema. Chema wrote a letter last fall to “remind” the residents Hiram area of “the many ways this development will be beneficial to all who live, work, and study in our area.” He wrote that the homes “will be attractive to persons over 55 years of age who are looking for independent living in a rural, but intellectually vibrant location,” that “the quality of life which we all wish to protect here is exactly what our prospective residents are attracted to and why they are anxious to join our community,” and “financially, the retirement community is a win for all parties.”

Chema then stated about the petition for annexation that “we have acted in good faith and have communicated openly with our colleagues and neighbors in the Village and Township. This project can be enormously positive for our area and is deserving of support.”


Chema’s arguments have fallen on deaf ears among township residents, many of whom want their township to be what it always has been: a quiet place to raise their family, farm animals, and vegetables.

The approximately 25 residents attending Friday’s hearing overwhelmingly disprove of the annexation, a common sentiment expressed throughout the entire process. Many fear the urban sprawl will inevitably come if the annex is approved; a stark change from the quiet country life many have known for their entire life. Their fears were heightened because the college has made several different proposals.

“What we’ve been told hasn’t been consistent,” said township resident Tom Franek after the January 27 annexation hearing where he and his wife, Rosalie, had intently and passionately watched the proceedings. His fears arise from “not knowing what it could be, or will be. We haven’t seen an actual plan; there’s different numbers of residents being proposed.” The Franeks’ property borders the northern edge of the land proposed to be annexed.

“For me to take them at their word, right now, to say this is what they’re going to do, I don’t believe it,” said township resident Aline Koptis during the lunch break of Friday’s hearing. “Because in God I trust; everybody else better have it in writing.” Koptis, a 1985 Hiram College graduate, lives with her husband and children on five acres of land bordered on three sides by the proposed annex.

“Concepts, that’s all we’ve seen so far; concepts, and every one of them is different” said township trustee Tom Bosma in an interview during the lunch break in Friday’s hearings. Bosma wore an old green flannel shirt and beat up baseball cap to the hearing (a noticeable contrast to the expensive tailored suits worn by the lawyers and representatives from the college) and sat with Koptis where the two reminisced about growing up in Hiram. “We’re talking crank telephones,” said Bosma, “and 3-digit phone numbers.” Koptis, whose family moved from Solon in to Hiram Township 1976 to avoid what she remembers to be rampant “urban sprawl,” remembers sledding as child on the hill where the $12 million recreation center now stands.

Why would the college want to develop that land for a retirement home? To Bosma, the answer is simple. “It’s a bunch of people from out of town and they want some money,” he sneered during the conversation. “Successful or not, they’ll do whatever it takes to get some money out of the 88 acres

If the annex does pass, Bosma and Koptis both believe that the retirement center will be a failure, citing the failed “Village Gate” subdivision on the other side of Hiram. Planned for 76 homes, Village Gate has only three occupied houses.

Bosma says the high price of the proposed retirement homes will prevent enough retirees from buying to make it worthwhile. “I can’t imagine people paying $300,000 to live on substantially less than a quarter of an acre. People with a few hundred thousand dollars to spare are generally smarter than that.”

At the end of the hearing on Friday, the board of commissioners allowed anybody in attendance to voice their opinion followed by the option for either side’s lawyers to question their statements. One by one, township residents voiced their opposition, hoping to preserve their community.

Martin Moleski was the first to speak. He and his wife had bought a house two years ago on property surrounded on three sides by the annex site. He took his allotted three minutes to passionately explain his legal and ethical grievances with the annex, followed by six minutes of heated questioning from the college’s lawyers. He vowed, as the youngest homeowner of the township at 28 years old, to “never stop fighting” the annex, causing a brief moment of laughter from the otherwise tense audience.

Eight other township residents followed Moleski, each desperately opposing the annex.

Nobody, other than college representatives, expressed support for the annex. “There’s nobody here for the pro-side, if you notice,” said Koptis earlier during the lunch break.


At the end of the February 11 hearing, newly elected Portage County Commissioner Tommie Jo Marsilio, who presided over the hearings, said that next scheduled hearing on March 8 should be the last. At that point, the board will have 30 days to make a decision.

Whatever the outcome, the board’s annexation decision is likely to go through an appeal process brought by the losing side.

“It’s still probably 50-50 by the time it’s out of court,” said Bosma. “It’s worth fighting, to me.”