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Published: Tuesday, 1/9/2001

Saying no to progress

Every city needs its gadfly and, for several years now, Rick B. Van Landingham III, a 30-something, self-styled environmental activist, has filled the bill in Toledo. He is bright, articulate, and occasionally - though not always - right.

However, a credibility problem is developing for the man who saved the Manhattan Marsh without stopping the road planned through it, backed off from the Forest Cemetery tower, in vain sought 24-hour manning of police substations, and recently failed in ill-conceived efforts to save the tatty behemoth that once was the city Welfare Building. He seems more and more Toledo's Dr. No of progress.

His interference has delayed construction of a new federal building on the Cherry Street site where the Welfare Building stood. It threatened the Jeep project, without which there would not be much of a Toledo left. And now he would toss a monkey-wrench into planned economic development on the east bank of the Maumee River, the site the mayor has designated as the Marina District.

It becomes apparent that this young man, now studying environmental law at the University of Toledo, is against almost everything.

We defended Mr. Van Landingham three years ago when Mayor Finkbeiner described him as “an irresponsible, immature saboteur of our efforts” in connection with the new Jeep plant. But his salvo at the east side development, from his new position as a self-styled historic preservationist, couched deviously as support of brownfields cleanup, gives us pause.

He likes the brick pattern in the walls of the old Toledo Edison Acme Plant on Front Street. On that whim he would spare it from the wrecker's ball, its fate if the planned development proposed by Frank Kass of Columbus is put together. The plant sits where a new sports arena is to be located.

The Acme plant, memorable for the regular dustings of fly ash it dumped on East Toledo and into the Maumee River, once produced 90 percent of the electricity used in this area. It now produces none. It is antiquated, tired, asbestos-ridden, plug-ugly, and ready for last rites. Toledo Edison, which intends to donate it to the Kass project, made its decision after having the structure on the market. No one wants it. The cost of removing asbestos from it is upwards of $5 million.

There was justifiable sympathy for Mr. Van Landingham's fight to save the Manhattan Marsh; but the rest of the Buckeye Basin Greenbelt Parkway could still be built if and when funds are available. The bald eagles he aimed to save are off the federal endangered-species list, though they remain on Ohio's. By June this year 45 nests in Ohio produced 89 eaglets. And National Park Service staff in Washington, D.C., found eagles didn't need woodsy isolation to propagate. Traffic won't put them off.

His efforts to hold Jeep and the city's administration to the letter of environmental regulations were of limited use in showing both the importance of giving the environment its due. Neither represents big-time notches in the belt of human achievement.

Now, the question is, who credentialed him as a historic preservationist? And why should words from his mouth carry more weight than those from anyone else, especially when he carries on without a lot of research?

His accomplishments as a gadfly for the public good have been occasional but not substantial. He has scored better as an egotistical obstructionist with a passion for ink and camera eyes.

His passion for his causes is admirable. But when his passion is misplaced, it is time for the community to say, enough already.

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