In recent weeks, the political climate in Norton has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Given the city’s history, that may be hard to believe, but the signs are unmistakable.
At a City Council meeting in October, an opponent of Council President Don Nicolard and Councilman John Conklin (both defeated Nov. 5) brought an empty box, which he said the incumbents could use to pack their things before leaving office.
At the same meeting, another opponent unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a screaming yellow T-shirt urging the ouster of the two council members.
Next month, voters will face a second issue on sewers, this one proposing to cap at $5,000 what residents could be charged for water and sewer lines, the city forced to pick up the rest. A similar issue, also brought to the ballot through citizens petitioning, was defeated in August.
The aim is to slow down or stop sewers in the Nash Heights area, where septic systems are failing. But because the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has issued an order for the city to bring sewer lines into the neighborhood, the more likely consequence is that Norton’s already shaken finances would be crippled.
In January, four newly elected members of the City Council will take their seats. When they do, a solid anti-sewer majority will be in place. It appears likely the bloc will try to slow down or stop plans to clean up Nash Heights.
In the middle of all this infighting, it may be tempting to conclude that Norton’s problems are caused by its own brand of bare-knuckle politics, punctuated by bitterly fought elections, ballot issues and the occasional recall election.
But Norton’s poisonous political climate is really a symptom, not a cause. Deep down, what Norton has is an identity crisis. It goes all the way back to 1961, when Norton Township, all 20 square miles of it, became a village.
The move was defensive, an effort to halt annexation efforts by neighboring Barberton. In 1969, the village’s population grew beyond 5,000. Under Ohio law, Norton became a city. It was more of an accident than anything planned.
The continuing problem is, many in the largely residential community don’t want to act like a city. Despite excellent freeway access, Norton is a low-density community of some 12,000 residents. Cuyahoga Falls, by comparison, covers about 26 square miles and has a population of almost 50,000. Even Hudson, also about 26 square miles, is more densely populated than Norton. It has over 22,000 residents.
But with low density comes a low tax base, and the city’s finances are difficult, strained particularly by residents’ insistence on having their own police department. Former City Councilman Tom Jones spearheaded an issue to contract with the sheriff’s office, which would have saved in the neighborhood of $1 million a year, but it was defeated. Jones, of course, faced a recall election. He survived.
Without development, which takes water and sewer lines, Norton has the feel of a township, but the responsibilities of a city. In the case of Nash Heights, that means solving the problem of leaking septic systems causing contamination, as flagged by the Summit County Public Health Department.
Other neighborhoods also have the same, long-festering problem of aging septic tanks on small lots, but are not close to existing sewer lines, as is Nash Heights. Still, it is unrealistic to think that the EPA is going to renegotiate over Nash Heights and leave other neighborhoods alone.
The agency has already objected to the option of having Nash Heights residents fix their septic systems, which would probably cost more than assessments for new sewer lines, anyway.
Resolving Norton’s identity crisis won’t be easy. Nicolard believes an upscale residential allotment of around 400 homes would be enough to tip the balance of power in Norton toward development. Others, among them Tim Crawford, a Summit County Council member and former Norton mayor, see a role for the county in promoting Norton’s development. (After all, the county owns the sewer lines.)
Jones, who believes developers have already bypassed Norton, says the answer is a merger with Barberton. Oh, well. Norton voters rejected in 2002 even forming a merger study commission.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.