“We want to cooperate, but we were just given a blank lease. We’re not going to sign that.” – Dave Beten
Ownership of the Burton Square log cabin and its surroundings appears to be in legal limbo following the Oct. 15 filing of a motion in Geauga County Court of Common Pleas.
The Burton Chamber of Commerce filed a complaint against everyone from one of Burton’s founding fathers, Ephraim Clark, to current village council, township trustees, the Ohio Attorney General and several utilities.
The 15-page suit seeks a determination as to who might lay claim to the cabin and sugar bush on the southern part of the historic square.
The suit was triggered when Burton Village Council asked the chamber of commerce to sign a lease, lacking any specifics, for the continued use of the property.
The lease was deemed necessary when the village sought a block grant through the Geauga County Department of Community and Economic Development to build handicapped-accessible restrooms in the log cabin, said CED Director Anita Stocker.
Dave Beten, chamber director and spokesman, said attorneys came into the picture when the incomplete lease was presented to the chamber to be signed.
“If we sign the lease, we agree the village owns the cabin,” he said. “We want to cooperate, but we were just given a blank lease. We’re not going to sign that.”
The chamber’s board of directors offered to sit down and talk with the village council about the problem. There has been one meeting, but no solution has been reached, Beten said.
“That hasn’t happened yet,” he said.
Stocker said they have until April 1, 2014, to clarify the ownership of the cabin. If that doesn’t happen, the block grant of $49,800 will no longer be available for the restrooms.
The motion, filed by attorney Kevin O’Reilly for the chamber, started with a history of the square, which in 1804 was conveyed to Clark and the other Burton residents including the roads around the square for $326.50.
The township was formed in 1806 and included most of Geauga County.
Other townships were peeled off until 1820, leaving five square miles as Burton Township.
The Village of Burton was created inside the township boundaries by the county commissioners in 1895.
“At no time has Burton Township become vested with ownership of the title to the Burton public square,” the history reads, adding the township informally assumed responsibility for operating the square.
The document continues that the same is true of the village, but the village, “…without legal authority to do so, informally assumed responsibility of operating the Burton public square and has continued to do so until the present time.”
A declaratory judgment of adverse possession, count one, notes the chamber built the log cabin, with permission from the village council, in 1931 for producing maple syrup.
“Plaintiff and its predecessor have openly, notoriously, continuously, adversely and for more than 21 years occupied, to the exclusion of the owners of the Burton public square, the southern portion thereof,” it reads.
Section 31 claims the village has waived any objection to the claim or ownership by the chamber.
The chamber has put a lot of resources, time and money into the cabin and the land occupied by it as well as maintained the heritage of the site for 82 years without interference, according to the document.
The chamber asks the court to grant a judgment giving it the “…unrestricted right to continue to maintain, repair, improve, expand and replace the log cabin and its appurtenances in the same way it has ever since 1931 and to use the Burton public park as a sugar bush.”
The document challenges all 17 parties in the plaintiff camp to prove they have an interest in the property or “be forever barred from asserting the same.”
In 2012, the village presented the lease to the chamber, a lease that would effectively result in the forfeiture by the chamber “of all its legal and equitable rights acquired over the past 83 years in exchange for no consideration whatsoever.”
The village’s application to the CED for funding for the restrooms “constitutes overt acts by the Village of Burton to take and appropriate the log cabin and the land surrounding it,” according to the filing.
The chamber is asking the court to direct the ownership of the property and cabin to the chamber or, as an alternative, to order that the chamber is vested in a perpetual easement by prescription, so the chamber can continue to operate the cabin and sugar bush.
The chamber also asks for a compensation from the village for the damages it has sustained and to have the village cover its litigation expenses and attorney fees.
Finally, the chamber requests any issues permitted by law to be decided by a jury be submitted to one.
On Nov. 12, Beten said attorneys from both the city and the chamber met to discuss the ownership issue, but have not resolved the matter.
A Similar Case
In 2002, when county commissioners were set on building a $7.4 million addition to the Geauga County Courthouse on Chardon Square, a similar situation arose.
There was no record that the county owned the square or had a right to add onto the building. The background that follows was reported in the Geauga County Maple Leaf.
The historical trail led back to 1811, when Samuel Phelps was appointed as director by the court of common pleas to buy the property for a town from a Cleveland millionaire for $400. The town first became a village, then became a city called Chardon.
In 1812, Phelps added restrictions to the deed to allow a courthouse, school or meeting house, but otherwise leave the square as a public place for the residents. The north-south view was not to be blocked.
As of September 2002, no suit had been filed, although the City of Chardon approved plans for the 24,000-square-foot addition, which was to be located mostly under the courthouse.
The following October, the city asked the court to decide which party had a legal claim to the square.
Legal counsel for the city said both parties may have a legal claim, but the Ohio General Assembly had passed legislation that, when a town becomes a village, public grounds within its borders become property of the city.
Judge James Porter ruled on Nov. 21, 2002 that the City of Chardon owns the public square, subject to the county’s right to build on it.
However, the members of the Geauga County Board of Commissioners had changed with the election and that body decided not to spend the money on an addition.
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