MANSFIELD — From the road, all that can be seen is a parking lot and tree-lined horizon, but the large swath of land on the corner of Home Road and Marion Avenue is rich with hills, wetlands and tributaries flowing toward the Clear Fork and Mohican rivers.
A parking lot has been installed off of Marion Avenue, prompting a Richland Source reader to ask about the fate of the property.
"Just north of Home Road off Marion Avenue there is an area to the right as you go toward town that has been cleared and paved. It looks like a parking lot but ... I’m wondering what it is for?" the reader asked.
The parking lot was added by the current owner, a non-profit organization called the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.
The WRLC is a non-profit land trust that works to protect natural resources through land conservation and restoration. According to Andy McDowell, the organization's vice president of western field operations, the WRLC has preserved nearly 65,000 acres of natural areas and working farms in 23 Ohio counties.
“When we study more of the urbanized counties or even semi-urbanized counties, it's clear that if you want conserved land, you got to get out ahead of development to do it," McDowell said of the organization's mission. “Once an area is urbanized with housing and other infrastructure in place, you're not going to retrofit (nature areas) back into the landscape.”
The WRLC purchased 287 acres (in multiple, adjoining parcels) from Dan Niss in June 2019. The land will eventually be opened to the public as a nature preserve.
“Some land is too special to be developed, and this property falls in that category,” Philanthropist Dan Niss said in 2019. “The environmental significance and the aesthetics of this property will contribute to the greater good of our community, and I’m glad to see that happen.”
The property already features abundant woodlands, walking trails, more than 2.5 miles of streams and a waterfall. Nevertheless, the WRLC plans to undertake significant restoration work before opening the property to the public.
Part of the restoration process will include reforesting areas that were heavily timbered and converted to farmland. Over the next two years, the WRLC will plant 28,000 seedlings. The organization also plans to create two pollinator gardens this spring, spanning about eleven acres in total.
While there's no official timeline, McDowell said it will likely be at least four or five years before the preserve is open to the public.
Prior to the WRLC's purchase of the property, leaders from the City of Mansfield had met with the conservancy to discuss installing a pathway through the reserve that would connect the B&O trail to the newer walking trail along the southern edge of Trimble Road.
City Engineer Bob Bianchi said that preliminary plans were drawn up, but the city had not been able to come up with the funds to move forward with the project.
The cost of the trail would likely exceed $1.1 million. Although most of that cost could be covered by grant funding, the city would first need to find local dollars to match.
After examining available grants, Bianchi found that the city would need to provide a local match of $120,000 for the design and property acquisition via easements and $150,000 for the construction in order to qualify for a $1 million grant.
“That was a year and a half ago,” he said. “At this point, the local funding share has become difficult to establish and we are still hopeful that at one point we can pursue the project.”
Bianchi said that the city does not have a dedicated funding source for this type of project, since it would be considered an “off road” trail.
“You can see for miles when you get up to the top of the knoll," Bianchi said. "It’s just beautiful.”