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Environmental activist pushes marsh protection


Local activist Rick Van Landingham makes a point, above, while talking to Lourdes Santiago, the city's acting director of neighborhoods, as they look over some property near the intersection of Edison and Bassett streets.


In politics, you never know when a foe might become a friend

Such was the case one recent morning when the city's acting director of neighborhoods, Lourdes Santiago, found herself ankle-deep in weeds and wild flowers on the edge of a North Toledo marsh with environmentalist Rick Van Landingham and other city officials.

Just a few years earlier, Mr. Van Landingham had sued the city in his opposition to construction of the Greenbelt Parkway, an action that led him to chain himself to a bulldozer. His chief opponent was Ms. Santiago, who worked in the city's law department. Eventually, the parkway was built.

Recalling the episode, Ms. Santiago said, “I kicked his butt.”

That comment brought a laugh from Mr. Van Landingham, who soon after his defeat enrolled in law school at the University of Toledo so he might be better prepared for confrontations.

This day was not about confrontations. It was about determining how to get things done.

Mr. Van Landingham, who heads the nonprofit Citizens for Buckeye Basin Parks, has been trying preserve about 80 acres of North Toledo wetlands and surrounding properties, known as the Manhattan Marsh Nature Preserve, more than half of which Buckeye Basin owns. For years, people have been using the area as a dumping ground, and Mr. Van Landingham wants the city to erect barriers to keep them out.

So he took Ms. Santiago and Bob Burger, commissioner of nuisance abatement, to the former AP Parts property on Ontario Street.

Buckeye Basin owns the property adjacent to the AP Parts plot. Most of that property is owned by Northriver Development, another nonprofit organization with which Mr. Van Landingham's group has been feuding. The area is littered with chunks of cement, furniture, scrap metal, and lumber. The AP Parts building foundation remains, another eyesore.

“It's really a problem,” Ms. Santiago conceded.

To the immediate east is the main body of the Manhattan Marsh, 50 acres of cattails and trees with Detwiler Creek gliding through its belly. The marsh is a magnet for birds and other wildlife.

The midday heat was stifling, keeping the marsh relatively quiet. But Mr. Van Landingham pointed to a pair of American egrets on a faraway tree. Eagles nest nearby, he said.

According to Mr. Van Landingham, the marsh is unknown to most Toledoans.

He recalled a decade earlier when Mr. Burger, then director of the Neighborhood Improvement Foundation of Toledo, called the place a dump. Mr. Van Landingham bet Mr. Burger lunch that he was wrong and took him on a canoe ride up the Detwiler. Mr. Burger, stunned by what he saw that day, still owns the T-shirt embossed with a picture of him in the canoe, a gift from Mr. Van Landingham.

Looking ahead, Mr. Van Landingham foresees a boardwalk circling the marsh, which is roughly bordered by Ontario, Suder, New York, and Manhattan streets. He foresees bike trails linking the marsh to other recreational areas. He envisions turning one of his organization's properties, at 720 Suder Ave., into Frogtown Community and Nature Center. He imagines all of this boosting the neighborhood's economy.

“There's the potential to draw tourists that would support North Toledo businesses,” he said.

As much as they admire Mr. Van Landingham for his ideals, civic causes, and passion, city officials and others often find themselves frustrated by what they consider to be his frequent whining, nitpicking, and lack of a big-picture focus.

“He can be a gadfly at times,” said the straight-talking Mr. Burger, who was within earshot of Mr. Van Landingham.

Though friends, the two are sparring. Mr. Burger's department cited Mr. Van Landingham's organization for failure to clean up some of its holdings, in particular the Suder Avenue property, an action that upset Mr. Van Landingham.

Said Mr. Burger: “I've been a supporter of Rick's ever since he was in college, but we have codes that need to be enforced. Rick cannot be above the law. He doesn't like it when inspectors put pressure on him to clean up the property.”

Mr. Van Landingham argues that his organization has complied on a number of occasions, only to have people continue to dump trash there. He said most of the dumping has occurred on a right-of-way owned by the city.

“We do not believe we should have been cited in the first place,” he wrote in one of his frequent e-mails to city officials. “We are a nonprofit organization, and we have done more to clean up the properties in the area than any other entity.”

Earlier in the day, Mr. Van Landingham led the group on a tour of another Buckeye Basin property, a vacant lot on Bassett Street at Edison. Nearby residents have complained about Mr. Van Landingham's refusal to cut the grass there while others were upset that he erected a fence that has prevented them from using an alley that cuts through the property. That issue was settled after the group agreed to get city approval to move the alley to another part of the property.

As for the grass, the city cut it two weeks ago. City council member Edna Brown, whose district includes the marsh, disdains Mr. Van Landingham's attitude in dealing with such issues.

“I think he's being vindictive in some instances,” she said. “I know his love for the marsh. I've tried to be a friend to him and the marsh project, but I think you have to be a good neighbor and be cooperative.”

Across the street from the Bassett Street property is an 11-acre parcel owned by Northriver Development, which builds homes, apartments, and supports small business start-ups in North Toledo. Mr. Van Landingham is hoping to acquire some of Northriver's properties through bartering to expand the marsh preserve. But he says Northriver officials are peeved because he opposed the Greenbelt Parkway, which Northriver supported.

David Eddy, Northriver's executive director, said he has only one problem with Mr. Van Landingham's organization: It hasn't developed a usage plan for the marshland property it owns. “It needs to be a plan that all the stakeholders - residents, businesses, and organizations - can agree on,” he said. “I don't think we're trying to hold them to a standard anyone else hasn't been required to do.”

Ms. Santiago voiced a similar sentiment.

Mr. Van Landingham, 32, who, along with law school, juggles several jobs, only one of which he gets paid for, said his organization is ready to finalize a usage blueprint. The idea has been in a concept stage for years while he waited for the city to abandon other plans for the area, he said. He hopes to have it completed by winter.

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