EJ Law Passes Over Chamber's Objection

Jun 25, 2009 at 3:43 pm

After more than three years of work and undergoing several alterations, Cincinnati City Council approved an “environmental justice” ordinance Wednesday in a close vote despite opposition from the business community.

Vice Mayor David Crowley, a Democrat in his last term, began working on the ordinance with an advisory committee in October 2005. Supporters held a rally at City Hall last week in anticipation of a decision, but Mayor Mark Mallory delayed a vote then because he believed council’s support was wavering. During the past few days, Crowley lobbied his colleagues hard and was able to muster the five votes needed for passage.—-

Besides Crowley, others who supported the ordinance were Democrats Laketa Cole, Greg Harris and Cecil Thomas, and Charterite Roxanne Qualls.

Opposed were Democrat Jeff Berding, Republicans Leslie Ghiz and Chris Monzel, and Charterite Chris Bortz. Berding tried to introduce a motion that would’ve delayed implementation for up to a year pending more review, but Mallory blocked an immediate vote and sent the motion to a council committee for discussion.

The ordinance requires an environmental assessment be done for certain types of projects proposed in neighborhoods that are deemed already adversely affected by toxins and pollution.

Cincinnati is believed to be the first U.S. city to require such a review.

Specific categories of businesses and construction will be exempt from the environmental justice review including office buildings, residential developments and “most commercial” projects, officials said. Reviews will be conducted only in neighborhoods defined as “environmental justice communities” and a one-mile radius around them.

A qualified professional hired by the city manager will conduct the reviews, and either the community or the developer could appeal the review decision to a seven-member environmental justice board of appeals.

City Council can overrule the board with six votes.

The city estimated the ordinance’s annual cost at $125,000 — $75,000 for a technically trained staff examiner and $50,000 for outside consultants. But the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce called the estimate “grossly understated” and stated it would cost another $170,000 to $280,000 each year, mostly for appeals and legal fees from businesses that are denied permits.

Ellen van der Horst, the Chamber’s president and CEO, wrote a letter last week to the mayor and City Council urging that the ordinance be rejected.

“In its current form, the proposed ordinance would have a significant negative impact on business development,” van der Horst wrote.

“At a time when the city of Cincinnati faces a projected $40 million budget deficit, creating a new unfunded mandate detrimental to business growth could only have a negative impact,” the letter added. “Without significant business growth, the city’s tax revenues will likely decrease and it will become more difficult to reduce the city’s projected deficit.”

Supporters countered that the Chamber’s claims were exaggerated, and that its members might feel differently if they had to live in neighborhoods grappling with excessive pollution.