City withdraws from NOPEC, searches for new aggregate

by Laura Bednar

Feb. 14 city council meeting

Independence City Council voted to withdraw from the Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council for gas and electric, effective Dec. 31.

Procurement Coordinator Dennis Zdolshek said there were recent issues with NOPEC, and withdrawing would allow the city to explore other options for aggregate gas and electric. He said after Dec. 31, residents could either remain with First Energy, choose another aggregate or the city could join another aggregate. Independence could also return to NOPEC.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio probably will not make a decision on the recertification of NOPEC until May or June. The city has to notify NOPEC of official termination by Sept. 1.

“I am just not sure that jumping out right now necessarily is the best idea when we could definitely wait a little while and see if they are recertified or not and then still have months to make a decision,” said Dale Veverka, the sole dissenting voter.

Residents received letters from The Illuminating Company and asked the city what the letter meant, according to Community Services Director Emily Thomas. Councilperson Chris Walchanowicz suggested a program to walk seniors through the process of deciding on gas and electric providers. Zdolshek said he asked the PUCO to give a presentation or workshop for residents.

Protected hillside zones

Council approved an exemption for commercial entities in the city’s protected hillside zones.

According to city ordinances, protected hillside zone areas “exhibit evidence of past or present unstable soil, [and have] steep slopes, meaning slopes leaving average contours of 25% or greater.” The purpose of these areas is to protect property owners from potential property damage and safety hazards brought about by hillside instability and maintain the city’s natural and existing waterways, creeks and streams and “provide the safe and natural flow of normal and storm water runoff with minimal erosion and sedimentation.”

This ordinance was passed in 2017, and an amendment was proposed at the November 2022 council meeting that would exempt existing commercial properties from the legislation.

City Engineer Don Ramm said that since 2017, “we have had a number of variance requests, primarily because the legislation was pretty broad in that it made no exclusions for whether it was developed or undeveloped land and whether it was residential or commercial.”

He explained that the ordinance must be applied in whole every time there is a proposed impact to the property setback. This led to variance requests, most of which were granted because the setback impacts existed before the ordinance was enacted.

According to an interoffice memo from Ramm, there were 11 total variances (commercial and residential) granted by the planning commission since the legislation was adopted in 2017. He also said the ordinance is cumbersome to navigate and the approval process can delay development projects.

Councilperson Anthony Togliatti said, “I think the original impetus of this is environmental protection. … I don’t agree with this broadly eliminating all commercial development from this.”

After a utilities and sewers committee meeting, changes were proposed and adopted at the February council meeting, with Togliatti and Veverka dissenting.

Councilperson Jim Trakas explained the changes: “We exempted [commercial properties] from the 25 foot setback, and we placed pretty strong language in there that every one of these commercial enterprises that applies to build close to a steep slope would have to put together a rather substantial slope protection plan that the city engineer would have to review and comment on and make sure that the stormwater management plan is viable and would actually function to help protect that area.”

The steep slope setback is the 25-foot area measured from the top of the ridge of the beginning of any area that meets the criteria for protected hillside zones.

At the utilities meeting, Veverka said he was concerned about the water situation for people downstream, adding that the 25 feet plays a role in the runoff. “We have to weigh the balance of economic development and potential damage to other people and their properties,” he said.

In other news, the fire department restructured its staff to allow for seven lieutenants instead of five and reduced the maximum number of firefighters from 23 to 21.

“We are looking to promote two lieutenants so that we have two lieutenants on each of our three operational shifts, and it will also prepare us for future changeover of management in about four years,” said Fire Chief Steve Rega. ∞