Pete Henderson is a past leader of the Cuyahoga Valley Community Council. In this interview he discusses his city and regional planning background and the challenges he addressed in the Cuyahoga Valley, including overcoming local governments' fears that a national park threatened to reduce the tax base through acquisition of otherwise developable land, problems of traffic, deer overpopulation, and gypsy moths. He also discusses farm restoration efforts.


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Henderson, Pete (interviewee)


Rebillot, Jacquie (interviewer)


Rivers Roads and Rails 2008



Document Type

Oral History


35 minutes


Pete Henderson [00:00:00] Henderson.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:00:00] And it's June 24th. Can you tell me where you were born?

Pete Henderson [00:00:04] In Arlington, Massachusetts.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:00:06] Arlington, Massachusetts. How did you end up in Cleveland, Ohio?

Jacquie Rebillot [00:00:10] I met my wife and when I was still living in Boston and she was from Cleveland. So we moved here.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:00:18] All right. And how long have you lived here?

Pete Henderson [00:00:21] Since 1956 and '57 in Lakewood.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:00:28] Very good. And in your childhood, were you interested in the park system when you were here?

Pete Henderson [00:00:34] Well, I lived, I grew up in Boston. I was, because I didn't even know where Cleveland was when I was a child. You mean the Cleveland Park s[ystem], or any park system? [crosstalk] I don't think I had a high degree of consciousness of... Well, there were some reservations around Boston that we used to bicycle to. So I guess I did in that sense, yes. Yeah.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:00:54] Very good. You were involved in the Cuyahoga Valley Community Council?

Pete Henderson [00:00:59] Yes.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:01:00] And how did you get involved?

Pete Henderson [00:01:03] Well, I was just out of a job [laughs], having worked for the state legislature for a time-limited period of time, as a staff director of a committee. And I was so busy finishing up that work that I hadn't thought of the next step. And just at that time, the council was getting ready, getting organized and wanted a full-time person to head the staff. And so I happened to hear about it. They heard about me and we got together.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:01:31] Was your training in law?

Pete Henderson [00:01:33] My background? Well I had... My graduate degree is in city and regional planning. Yeah, yeah.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:01:41] And what motivated you then to get involved with...

Pete Henderson [00:01:44] Well, I thought it was a very interesting venture, not just because of the national park or what was it called, a national recreation area then, but the whole challenge of, of bringing the Park Service people and the local government people together to resolve common concerns. It was very much the sort of thing that I had pretty much done most of my life and in government.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:02:10] What year would you say you got involved in that"

Pete Henderson [00:02:15] 1978.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:02:16] '78? Yeah, I was reading that...

Pete Henderson [00:02:17] Just exactly 40 years ago. I mean, what's that? 30 years ago.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:02:21] 30 years ago.

Pete Henderson [00:02:22] Yeah, this month. Yeah.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:02:24] Okay, I was reading that in 1974 when Gerald Ford designated that.

Pete Henderson [00:02:28] He signed the legislation in December '74. That's correct.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:02:31] The western parks were not happy because they wanted the funding to go out there. And maybe one congressman said, Over my dead body will Cuyahoga Valley...

Pete Henderson [00:02:40] Oh.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:02:40] ... be a park.

Pete Henderson [00:02:43] I've never heard that particular story.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:02:44] I was reading in the back of the book that they gave us.

Pete Henderson [00:02:49] I had heard that the Park Service was not accustomed to having units near urban areas and that this was one of the first of that kind, and that was not a lot of interest in the kind of money that will take, or other reasons, too, I don't know the reasons, but I've not heard your version of the story. But that probably is part of the same thing.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:03:11] So when you worked with the Cuyahog Valley Community Council, what were some of the early hurdles?

Pete Henderson [00:03:20] Okay, well, on the negative side, the local governments, many of them, you know... It's going to vary depending upon which one but, and the school districts – we were an organization of cities, villages, townships, and school districts, and the two counties who were the members of our organization. A paramount concern was the potential loss of tax revenues because of the federal acquisition of properties. A number two concern was the... an increasing traffic problem that was envisioned. Never came about but that was, that was just on... There had just been the last few years prior to that, some severe traffic problems connected with concerts at the Coliseum and to a lesser extent at Blossom, and there was the apprehension—it was not warranted, it turned out, but the apprehension was—the park would bring more of that big event kind of traffic, I think. Of course, that never happened. But those were the two major concerns in varying degrees on the part of the units of government.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:04:30] So how did they solve the tax... [crosstalk]

Pete Henderson [00:04:34] Well, what we learned, what we suspected, as we thought more about it, was there was sort of a knee-jerk reaction, but without really knowing the facts. And there were all kinds of views as to what the impact of the Park Service would be on tax revenues. So we just sat down or I sat down over a period of months, spent many hours in the auditor's office of Summit County and Cuyahoga and compiled a massive database on what the actual tax impact would be, and it varied a great deal by jurisdiction. I think, Woodridge schools were going to suffer the greatest, but they weren't that concerned. And to a large extent, the facts simply showed that given what the park's plan was for acquisition of easements or fee simple, there wasn't really going to be that big an impact. So that kind of dissolved or evaporated the problem.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:05:35] Now, I noticed in the park today there's a publicly owned land and then there's some private homes there. How does that all work out? Or maybe they're not private owners. It looks like private individuals living there.

Pete Henderson [00:05:47] There very well may be. I have the feeling that I was diminishing over time. But when the park acquires a residential or agricultural property, I believe is the way the legislation is, not business, the owner may reserve the right of, quote, "continued use and occupancy," for a designated period of time, up to 25 years or for life. And when that... When that figure is determined, then there's a one percent per year reduction in the purchase price. So some people could if they chose the life option and they lived another 30 or 40 years, why they still could be there. [laughs] Mm hmm.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:06:34] What changes have occurred since you first worked on the project?

Pete Henderson [00:06:39] Well, I think over the over the, let's see, I was there for about 25 or almost 30 years... Number one, the anxieties about what the park, what's the park's impact on the local governments would be was greatly diminished. And that wasn't just our doing. It was in part, as people began to understand things better and see things develop, they saw it weren't going in the direction. The traffic problem, for example, wasn't, wasn't materializing. Secondly, we began to take on problems that weren't necessarily altogether park-related, and the first of which was recommended to us or asked others by the village of Peninsula, and that was a problem of the growing population of deer. And some people thought that might have been because of the national park. But clearly that was not that simple. It was going to happen anyhow. So over three years, in the '90s, early '90s, we had a study group of mayors and Park Service people and Metropark people and Department of Natural Resources and so forth, examining just exactly what was the nature of that problem and to what extent it could be resolved. The outcome was, unfortunately, the only alternative was shooting to reduce the number of deer and the Metroparks undertook that. The Park Service is still doing an environmental assessment, leading perhaps, perhaps, to that. And so that was a case of it wasn't altogether a... The park units, both Metro and National Park, and you may not know that within the national park or outside of Metropolitan Park units, so you know, are to a degree, a significant degree, even more sensitive to the overall population of deer than the average residential area. And so it was necessary to preserve there the balance of nature for them to do something about it. So there was a case where we undertook a regional problem that wasn't altogether a park problem, although it was largely so. We did something similar with the infestation of gypsy moths a few years later, what could, you know, what could be done about that. So the organization in the few years prior to my retirement was beginning to look at other issues, not altogether park issues, and has at my recommendation subsequently organized itself as a public council of governments under the state statutes for just that purpose. It's no longer wholly focused on the national park.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:09:25] What are they doing about the deer population now?

Pete Henderson [00:09:28] I'm not up to date as to what... I understand that, I don't know, I mean, I know the Akron Metroparks have undertaken a program subsequent to my being there. The Park Service, I believe, is still, I think, coming close to the steps they need to take to do whatever they do. [laughs] Yeah, yeah.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:09:49] How has the landscape changed in the park since it started?

Pete Henderson [00:09:56] Hmm. I don't... I don't think of any dramatic examples. I think the Park Service came in time to preclude any sizable development that would change the landscape. Largely, they're there to perfect and preserve, as well as to do fairly small-scale things that make it more useful, like trails and so forth. There used to be a significant agricultural community in the park, much of which had disappeared before the park came in. And then they acquired a few farms, too. And toward the end of my service there, why we—I was on an advisory body the park got together to help the mother take a farm restoration project. And I presume, I know some of the farms have already been reestablished, so I presume that would have perhaps changed the landscape a little bit.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:10:58] I see. What kind of support does the project have currently and what kind of organizations are in place to support...

Pete Henderson [00:11:05] The... My organization or?

Jacquie Rebillot [00:11:09] Right, right, your organization.

Pete Henderson [00:11:11] I don't know what has changed, so I can only speak of what was. I don't think that anything has changed, but we existed financially on a very modest budget with contributions from the local units of the participating units of government and school districts. And then from time to time we would go to foundations when we had a particular major undertaking in mind and we had, oh, half a dozen or more of those projects over the years. So it was mostly local governments. And, oh, the National Park Service contributed. They were the probably the single largest contributor. We never allowed that to get too big because we wanted to maintain a balance.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:11:51] So you operate on grants and then support from governments?

Pete Henderson [00:11:54] Yeah, mm-hmm, right.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:11:56] Okay. Very good. When I talked to you all the time, you said you did collaborations with the schools in the park. What kind of things did you do?

Pete Henderson [00:12:03] Well, quite honestly, we didn't have the tax laws thing probably was the school's major concern. And one of the frustrations that I had and some of our folks had was that we had a number of very loyal school districts 'cause some of their leaders that were on our board of trustees and our membership—largely board of education members, not so much the staff people—were some of our most valuable people, but we didn't find an awful lot of things that we could really do to, do for them, you know, but they stuck with us nevertheless and... Why I don't know but they did.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:12:43] In what ways will your efforts benefit the region, the efforts that you had with the Cuyahoga Valley Community Council?

Pete Henderson [00:12:53] Well, I mean, I just tried to do my job as best I could, I guess, so I would have a hard time really disassociating my particular contribution from that of the various committees of task forces we had.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:13:09] And how about the committees and task forces? How will their work...

Pete Henderson [00:13:12] Well, the, they were, as in any organization, we had a lot of them and they were of varying degrees of success and some were fairly short-lived and some longer. But the one on the deer problem, I think, was probably the single most effective. It met every month for three years and with almost full attendance every time during the day. So, I think that was a, no credit to me necessarily, but I think the problem generated the interest and it worked very well.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:13:46] Very good. How has the unfolding of the Cuyahoga Valley Community Council been different than you expected it to be? Were there any things that you expected that didn't...

Pete Henderson [00:14:03] Well, I didn't anticipate some of the subjects we dealt with, such as deer and gypsy moths and actually though... But no, I don't, I don't think there were any big surprises, you know.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:14:21] Is the Cuyahoga Valley Community Council still together?

Pete Henderson [00:14:25] Yes.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:14:26] And what are the kinds of things they are doing now?

Pete Henderson [00:14:29] You know, I don't really know. I mean, I know they're there because I get notices, the meetings and some other events. And I was at a meeting there last October. I haven't tried to hang on. You know, when you retire, you retire. Let the new people take over. That's been my philosophy, so I can't say everybody up to date.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:14:47] Are there any other people that you should talk to about this?

Pete Henderson [00:14:51] About the council and such?

Jacquie Rebillot [00:14:53] Right, right, any other?

Pete Henderson [00:14:55] Well, I think probably the current, the young woman who has taken my position. Having met her several times, I'm at a loss to think of her name at the moment, but [Jennie] Vasarhelyi would know. I mean, people in the Park Service would know. That's terrible. I can't remember her name. It'll come to be as soon as I walk out that door. Okay, you know, I'm at the age where you start having senior moments. Okay?

Jacquie Rebillot [00:15:20] I have them now!

Pete Henderson [00:15:21] Oh, do you?

Jacquie Rebillot [00:15:22] Yes!

Pete Henderson [00:15:22] Well, junior moments then, yeah. [laughs].

Jacquie Rebillot [00:15:24] Good. Going back just [to] when you were acquiring the land and dealing with the government, did you ever have to use the eminent domain?

Pete Henderson [00:15:36] Yes. Ultimately, because, you know, the council didn't get involved with the doing of that land acquisition. The Park Service, no the Park Service, that was their job. We were a nonprofit corporation. We had no such authority or mission. That was all the Park Service's responsibility. They tried first, as I understand it and I was fairly close to that process for in the earlier years when they were still very active, there came a point where they weren't doing that much acquisition anymore. But they would first try to simply negotiate a purchase. I mean, you know, go to you and I'd say we'd like, we're interested in your house. How much do you want for it, and try to reach an agreement. And if that didn't work and the Park Service felt it was important enough to have that property, which they probably would have thought or they wouldn't have even started the discussion, they could exercise eminent domain. There's an intermediate step and I can't think what it was called, where the... It was simply— there's a word for this and I can't think what it is legally, it was new to me at the time—where they go to court actually to get a settlement on price, but it's not actually exercising eminent domain. And I can't think of what that's called, yeah.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:16:59] So the National Park Service was responsible...

Pete Henderson [00:17:02] They were, yeah, they, the entirety. We had no authority in that area at all.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:17:06] You were just in charge of making sure good relations persisted with the schools...

Pete Henderson [00:17:11] Yeah, we, I think we had some impact. We reviewed their land acquisition plans. They don't call it that, they call it a land protection plan, and in fact it was a listing of priorities of the lands they needed to acquire in fee or in easement or those they didn't require. And we had quite a number of meetings in the earlier years reviewing that. And I don't know... I can't specifically say we had a lot of influence, but I think we had some. Yeah.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:17:44] Very good. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Pete Henderson [00:17:48] No, you know, after four years, it's amazing how much is gone. It was a thoroughly enjoyable... It was probably the single job, well 'cause I had 25 or 30 years, so it was obviously the longest thing I ever did and the most rewarding, not only in terms of, not just in terms of accomplishments, but in terms of the people. I enjoyed working with both Park Service as well as our own members, our councilmen and the board of trustee members, township trustees and school board members. Yeah, I didn't love them all, but [laughs], but by and large, it was a very high caliber of people.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:18:27] Great. [inaudible name], do you have any questions?

Pete Henderson [00:18:31] That's it? Okay.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:18:32] That's it.

Pete Henderson [00:18:34] Very good. Enjoyed meeting you all.

Jacquie Rebillot [00:18:36] Thank you. Thank you very much.

Pete Henderson [00:18:37] Yep, okay.

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