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A 20-year legacy: exploring the formation and history of Bath Nature Preserve

Posted: December 29, 2017

by Wendy Turrell


Twenty years ago, a handful of visionary Bath citizens came together to protect 370 acres of unspoiled Ohio forest and wetlands and create the Bath Nature Preserve. 


The results of their efforts have enriched the lives of residents while conserving and restoring valuable ecological features, such as Bath Creek and Pond, the Tamarack Bog and the Garden Bowl Wetland.


The nature preserve was carved from the original Raymond Firestone Estate, a stretch of over 1,500 acres that encompasses most of the land between Cleveland-Massillon and Hametown roads from east to west and Ira and Bath roads from north to south.


When Firestone and his wife, Jane, died in 1994, they left the land to Ohio State University. Ohio State trustees determined they could best realize the value and spirit of the bequest by selling the land.


At the time OSU was deciding the property’s fate, public concerns arose that the land’s role as part of the Yellow Creek watershed, along with its sensitive wetlands and historic value, would be lost. 


The university sold the land to John Chlebina, a Bath resident and owner of Commonwealth Properties Inc., whose bid was accepted over two other competing entities: Biskind Realty Company of North Olmsted and The Trust for Public Land. Chlebina kept 120 acres for his personal property. 


“I was looking for a large parcel to build our home,” he said, one that would be surrounded by undeveloped land like the farm where he grew up.


Botnick and Merryweather, a realty company, developed the Firestone Trace subdivision on 300 acres of the property, accessible from Hametown and Ira roads.


Over the years, Chlebina sold off additional acreage to the Medina Park Board for the land on Remsen Road where the Bath Pony Club meets, to Bath Township for ballparks, to Revere Schools (which was later resold) and to Victory Gallop. He sold the original Firestone home and acreage on Ira Road and the original Firestone farmhouse and 40 acres on Bath Road to families.


The bond issue


When the estate changed hands, grassroots organizers in Bath raised concerns about possible development changing the character of the community.


Resident Pam Reitz remembers being one of the 20-25 activists, who called themselves the Bath Open Spaces. 


“We went to a lot of trustees’ meetings and met a lot at each others’ houses,” she said. “We even raised money to fund a ballot initiative by hosting a spaghetti dinner. Congressman John Seiberling came to our spaghetti dinner, and that really gave us credibility.”


When a bond issue to fund the nature preserve was placed on the ballot in March 1996, voters approved it by a wide margin.


Bath Trustee Elaina Goodrich was a trustee when the land for the preserve was purchased. She acted as township negotiator in acquiring it from Chlebina. 


“I wanted to set aside some land from the start to preserve the natural surroundings,” Chlebina said.


In October 1997, Bath Township bought 370 acres of the land deemed most ecologically sensitive to become the Bath Nature Preserve, and in January 1998, the township purchased an additional 34 acres from Chlebina. 


The acquisition was made possible by financing the $3.4-million purchase price in short-term notes, said Goodrich. The final payoff was completed in 2010, when the remaining $1.8 million was repaid with inheritance taxes, she said.


Chlebina’s attorney at the time, Bath resident Robert Konstand, helped negotiate the deal. He described the preserve tract as “a pristine area of land that was not developed except for three houses. The wetlands, meadows and hills made it perfect to be preserved by Bath as a nature preserve.”


University of Akron partnership


The nature preserve opened to the public on July 16, 2001. Since then, it has evolved in scope and purpose. 


In August 2002, the township signed an agreement with the University of Akron to establish a research field station in the preserve. Konstand, who had begun working as legal counsel for the township, assisted Goodrich on the negotiation.


Longtime Bath resident Rosalie Steiner was another instrumental advocate for the preserve. She gave UA her 23 wooded acres and home adjoining the field station site in 2012, a year before she passed away. Steiner had long championed the work the university did there, inviting visiting students and scientists to stay in her home while completing fieldwork.


Kathy Sidaway, Bath Park Board member and former president, said the township’s relationship with the university and the field station “is a treasure.” 


“[Field Station Director Dr. Randall Mitchell and Manager Dr. Lara Roketenetz] both have so much knowledge and passion for the land and life that abounds in the park and have taught us so much,” she said.


Grants and improvements


Just after the preserve was acquired, grants were obtained to restore Bath Creek to its natural meander, Sidaway said. The project, which took years to complete, won first place in the Natural Resource and Conservation category from the Ohio Parks & Recreation Association in 2014.


“That action has been instrumental in the formation of the Garden Bowl [Wetland], a natural water retention area that allows heavy water runoff to gently return to the ground over time, rather than flood nearby land,” Sidaway said.


Chlebina, Konstand and Sidaway praised Goodrich’s ability to find grants and propel growth and improvement of the preserve during her tenure as a trustee. Sidaway also credited Park Director Alan Garner and his crew, Steven Soblosky and Scott Finley, with obtaining funds.


The upgrades and enhancements to the nature preserve over the past 20 years are numerous. From 2003-2005, an underpass and bridge were constructed across Cleveland-Massillon Road connecting the Bath Community Activity Center and the nature preserve. Because the project involved a county road, Goodrich said the county engineer at the time, Greg Bachman, obtained grants and implemented the project with input from the township. 


An ambitious restoration of the preserve’s Tamarack Bog – a relic from the Ice Age created by a retreating glacier – was completed from 2013-2016, aided by a private donation of $292,000 from local angler Joe Balog.


In addition, an annual steeplechase European-style cross-country 8K race through the preserve was inaugurated in 2013 to raise funds to support Bath Parks.


Present day


Today, the nature preserve remains a gem for nature lovers and casual recreational users. Nearly five miles of hiking and equestrian trails cover varied terrain. The Bath Community Activity Center and the Regal Beagle shelter, with its wood-burning oven, serve as popular gathering places. 


Chlebina’s home, built in 2017, abuts the preserve, and he enjoys running its trails. He said he is “thrilled to see it utilized the way it is.”


Recent highlights include the addition of community gardens in 2015, the installation of electricity and a deck at the Regal Beagle and the construction of a boardwalk that made Tamarack Bog accessible to the public in 2016 (a project that won second place in the Ohio Parks & Recreation Association’s Natural Resource and Conservation category in December).


Private and public support has always been a major factor in the improvement of the preserve, and in 2017, this was reaffirmed, as construction began on an observatory donated by the Summit County Astronomy Club.


As Bath Nature Preserve’s legacy continues, its 20th anniversary will be commemorated in many ways in 2018, said Sidaway, in conjunction with observances for the township’s bicentennial celebration. 


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