Brian Bilger had received a verbal award of a contract for the landscaping work from the Seneca County commissioners.
TIFFIN -- A visit from two local landscapers Tuesday sent the Board of Seneca County Commissioners scrambling to collect more proposals for landscaping the barren former site of the historic 1884 Seneca County Courthouse in the heart of downtown Tiffin.
Dan Vera, owner of Mohawk Nursery, and Brian Coleman, owner of Sticks Lawn & Landscape -- both Tiffin-based companies -- questioned the commissioners' verbal award of a contract to Brian Bilger, owner of Bilger's Lawn & Landscape, for landscaping the dirt square.
Mr. Bilger, who is also a Tiffin City Council member, presented his design to the commissioners at the April 24 meeting.
He estimated the landscaping would cost $10,000, although he stressed the commissioners were free to choose a landscaper of their choice. At that time, the commissioners said no other landscaper had submitted a proposal, so Commissioners Ben Nutter and Jeff Wagner gave Mr. Bilger verbal approval to proceed with the project. Commissioner Dave Sauber said he wanted more time to think about it.
Mr. Vera took exception to that decision, informing the commissioners that neither he nor Mr. Coleman had been approached to submit a design for the project.
"I'm requesting that the county … consider more than one proposal for the courthouse property. I think our community as a whole would agree that expenditures amounting to $5,000-$10,000 would qualify as significant. The lack of seeking other proposals is bordering on irresponsible," he said. "This is a simple action that results in reasonable and responsible county spending. I realize Mr. Bilger submitted a free design. That does present some implications that nobody else was really willing to. This implication is really hurtful to area businesses."
Mr. Vera then urged commissioners to accept designs from other area landscapers. "The county would have nothing to lose through this process," he said. "It would justify the amount of the expenditure by recognizing several different proposals and identifying which proposal provides the greatest value to the county and its residents. It also avoids implications that certain businesses have been chosen with prejudice for any reason."
Seneca County is not required to officially open the bidding process for any project with an estimated cost of less than $25,000. County Administrator Stacy Wilson said that she did contact three landscaping companies, none of which was interested in submitting a design. One of those companies is based in Wyandot County.
Mr. Bilger said his plan for landscaping was minimal and meant to enclose the site on two sides, while leaving the center wide open for any future possible building. It's also affordable at just $10,000, but his design still includes 16 trees, 32 shrubs, and 49 perennial plants.
"We didn't want any really tall trees that would block the view of Court Street, which has those really nice buildings," he said. "We thought we could have a nice, open green space where, in the middle, we could have the farmers' market or, if we wanted to, we could have bands play."
Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said industrial sites -- which this is not -- are typically problematic for landscaping after a demolition.
"It really depends on what was in the building before but typically if it was just a regular building, did it have a basement? What was in the basement? Did it have a big oil boiler? All of those are questions to ask, but for uses like residential or even a courthouse, it all depends," Mr. Ben-Joseph said. "If you are putting just shrubs and grasses, then you don't need a lot of topsoil. But if you are putting trees, you might need more. It can be six inches to a couple of feet depending on the design intended there."
Mr. Bilger said he would bring in 30 to 40 cubic yards of topsoil to build up flower beds, and for his trees and shrubs, but the rest of the site was coated over with topsoil by B&B Wrecking and Excavating of Cleveland. That company was supposed to have the property seeded about a month ago, but it is expected to do that soon.
Brian Baumann, president of B&B Wrecking and Excavating, said his firm spread out more than five dump trucks full of topsoil at the site, which provided at least a 4-inch base on which to grow. That, along with the seeding, was included in the original demolition contract with the county.
"We put topsoil down, and the scope calls for temporary seeding because I think the county wanted to have a regular landscaping," Mr. Baumann said.
Crews from the company were at the site April 26 and 27 removing brick fragments and rocks from the dirt through a process called rock hounding.
"It is basically a rake and it comes through the soil and it pulls any rocks out," he said. "Whatever is there, we will get it out."
Mr. Baumann also said the soil beneath his topsoil was cleared of contaminants.
"We had the EPA up there several times and we had an asbestos survey and then they inspected it. They told us they were going to take extra special attention because of the attention it was going to get."
Dina Pierce, an Ohio EPA spokesman, confirmed that test results for asbestos were negative. A testing report from Amianthus LLC of Berea, Ohio, showed 31 soil samples were taken, and none had detectable asbestos. "It was not an industrial site, refueling station, or dry cleaner where we expect to see metals or solvents," Ms. Pierce said.
The county commissioners declined to pay $2,700 for hydroseeding rather than traditional grass seeding, since that was not included in the contract with B&B. Hydroseeding uses recycled newspaper and fertilizer to make soil suitable for grass.
"They are not asking for Jacobs Field or the Masters," Mr. Baumann said. The grass is part of the storm water prevention and pollution plan that is meant to keep the dirt from spilling onto the street and clogging city storm sewers. So far, there has been no runoff problem from the site, city and county officials said.
During the meeting Tuesday, Mr. Bilger was contacted via telephone. According to Mr. Wagner, "Brian said he doesn't feel that he's under a contract at this point so we should feel free to make proposals."
"We've debated this subject for many, many years," Mr. Nutter said. "We directed our staff to call area companies to see who would be willing to come in and give us some ideas. We were meaning to be all-inclusive, not exclusive. I want to make clear that the board did not call Mr. Bilger and ask him to get to work. We discussed it in open meeting."
Mr. Vera explained that the process should have included contacting more landscapers in Seneca County.
Mr. Sauber said he is still not in favor of any landscaping at the site until there is a definite construction plan.
Initially, the commissioners had hoped to have the area landscaped by Memorial Day. But seeding the lawn has been delayed until later this week. According to Mr. Vera, a less-than-sufficient stand of grass may not accommodate the landscaping materials and equipment prior to the holiday.
The commissioners decided to extend the deadline for landscaping proposals to May 15.
Both Mr. Vera and Mr. Coleman said they intend to submit designs.
Blade correspondent Lisa Swickard contributed to this report.
Contact Ignazio Messina at: email@example.com or 419-724-6171.