News: All's Not Quiet on the Western Front

Green Township residents battle a mega-store development proposal, but the war likely has been lost

It's a classic, recurring community dispute: Residents in a growing area don't want to live next to another large store with a parking lot.

This time, the 80,000-square-foot store in question is planned for 18 acres on Harrison Avenue in Green Township, between Blue Lake Drive and Valley Ridge Road.

Owners of the 60 homes at nearby Chateau Lakes are worried that storm-water run-off from the planned 400-space parking lot will pollute one of the subdivision's two lakes. Silt streaming from stockpiled dirt on the nearby property has already turned Clear Lake a chocolate brown, according to Bob Gardner, president of the Chateau Lakes Homeowners Association.

The Concerned Citizens of Western Hamilton County (CCWHC), a grassroots group that tracks development, is backing the residents, citing concerns that the store is just too big for the property, according to CCWHC spokesperson Clare Johnson.

"You can build the pyramids, but what is the impact to the community?," said Joseph Jaap, the attorney representing Chateau Lakes residents.

The property in question — which currently is mostly empty — is owned by a trust of the six-member Geiler family. They're pushing for the "highest and best use" of their land, meaning the most profitable, which is a large store for a yet-to-be determined occupant, according to Charles Mitchell, the Geilers' attorney.

"Harrison Avenue is absolutely a commercial corridor," Mitchell said. "You can't have a more commercial corridor."

The Western Hamilton County Collaborative Plan — Hamilton County's 20-year road map for development for the West side — has already designated the Geiler land for commercial uses, says Adam Goetzman, Green Township's development director. But before the Geilers can accommodate the store, they need county approval to rezone seven residential acres in the rear of the property for commercial use. The residential land was intended to serve as a buffer between a store and Chateau Lakes.

Mitchell said the planned store wouldn't be out of place compared to the 185,000-square-foot Showcase Cinemas Western Hills or the 120,000-square-foot Kroger and Kmart stores at Manchester Center, all located a mile or two down Harrison Avenue. While neighbors are asking for a smaller store, Mitchell said the Geilers have already compromised because their land could hold a 120,000-square-foot building.

Chateau Lakes residents, however, are holding one big trump card — access to their privately owned sewers, which the Geilers need to develop the property. The nearest public sewers would cost at least $200,000 to reach, compared to $5,000 for the Chateau Lakes system, Gardner said.

In return for access, Gardner wants a 100-foot natural greenbelt between the neighborhood and the planned store, plus storm drains that can handle the water a severe storm would dump on the planned parking lot, which would rush down a hill to Clear Lake. County rules require only a 35-foot belt.

In the early 1970s, the Geilers had an agreement with the Chateau Lakes developer to access the subdivision's sewer lines, which still have 75 percent of their capacity unused. But, Mitchell said, the document wasn't recorded, which makes it difficult to enforce.

Chateau Lakes, built mostly from 1972 to 1976, is a semi-secluded collection of cabinlike homes nestled into a wooded area just off Harrison Avenue. The subdivision — built on land once owned by the Geilers — is surrounded by trees, providing residents with a feeling of tranquillity and isolation, even through I-74 is just minutes away.

Residents own their homes but co-own the land, paying a $75 monthly fee for lawn mowing, water and other services, such as the hundreds of special algae-eating carp — worth $10 each — placed in the man-made lakes, Gardner said.

"We're a self-contained unit," he said.

Gardner and his wife stumbled upon Chateau Lakes eight years ago while driving after church. His wife saw the cottagelike houses and liked them immediately.

Gardner said the trees surrounding the subdivision led him to assume there would be no nearby development. In reality, the Geilers' property line is about 35 feet from a few Chateau Lakes homes, including his.

"I'll have to admit I knew very little about (the nearby land)," Gardner said.

Same Old Story in the Burbs
But what is the root of this dispute between the Geilers and the residents? The same conflict is repeated almost endlessly all over the country, with residents opposing development on the grounds that it infringes upon their lifestyles, while developers make similar arguments about their property rights. The arguments require hours of government meetings, work by lawyers and citizen time — and that's if there isn't a lawsuit.

These typical disputes are set up by counties that rezone farms and other land for commercial or residential uses without first drafting a comprehensive plan that specifically outlines where the new streets will go, how the different uses will work together and where to build sidewalks, among many other issues.

Once one project is approved, developers begin a race to build lucrative stores and houses first to make the most money before the market is saturated. Farmers oblige and even encourage the land spectators, because they pay substantially more money for their land than another farmer would.

Residents like Gardner, who often have moved just outside of the city for the rural atmosphere, assume nothing will change. Then they cry foul when more people inevitably move into the area, requiring more services and bringing more traffic. Counties and townships throw local and state money at the roads to lessen congestion, but the bigger roads inadvertently provide better access to the land that hasn't been developed, leading the way for more development.

So how can the Chateau Lakes residents argue, as Gardner has, that the proposed store should be opposed because it's sprawl? Chateau Lakes itself is a sidewalk-free, low-density, isolated collection of houses whose residents must drive to buy the simplest of items, such as a gallon of milk — characteristics typical of sprawling development.

The irony is that, when people like Gardner buy houses in places like Chateau Lakes, it's easier for the Geilers to attract a store.

"That's a cause-and-effect that a lot of people don't understand," said Steve Austin, president of Bluegrass Tomorrow, a Lexington, Ky.-based group that promotes better long-term planning in seven central Kentucky counties.

This parcel-by-parcel spot development inevitably leads property owners and residents to clash over who can build what.

"Once it gets to that point, nobody wins," Austin said.

It's very difficult to change a property's zoning once the county has put it in its comprehensive plan, he said. In western Hamilton County, zoning changes require at least three levels of approval, including the local township or city, the regional planning commission and the county commission, Goetzman said.

Lexington, though, is taking steps to prevent this haphazard pattern of development.

In 1958, Lexington was the first city to establish an urban service boundary, outside of which no development can occur. The purpose? To encourage growth to stay close to the city's center. Every decade or so, Austin said, the city expands its boundary to include several thousand more acres.

Until 1998, poor planning allowed sprawl to consume the new land. However, in the mid-1990s, the city began to develop a master plan for its next urban boundary expansion — this time 5,300 acres.

The plan laid out a mixed-use town center, similar to what exists on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton or on Hyde Park Square, plus a network of streets and neighborhoods.

At first, the developers and land owners were not happy the city was telling them how they could use their land.

"It was an extremely bloody process," Austin said, adding that it took three years to adopt a plan. "Developers and land owners are very conservative people."

But this wasn't the first time a small city has been planned from the ground up. Mariemont, the compact village of 3,000 located 10 miles east of Cincinnati, was built seven decades ago from a large farm. All of Mariemont's streets, housing and its commercial center were planned before construction began, so even its first residents knew what their community would look like decades down the road. That's not usually the case in the United States, Austin said.

Cincinnati is fortunate, he said, because many cities don't have a good example of master planning like Mariemont.

"Overall master planning is lacking in the entire country," Austin said.

Master planning also promotes Mariemont-style town centers combining commercial, office and retail uses located at the center of a compact, walkable neighborhood. These centers have the same basic ingredients that poorly planned development does, such as the Fields-Ertel exit off I-71, Austin said.

"(A town center) is a strip mall with a kinder, gentler face to it," he said.

Reaching a Compromise
Although it seems the Geiler property is destined for some sort of commercial development, Chateau Lakes might have avoided a similar result with the property next to it.

Some states have started farm preservation programs, setting aside money to buy the development rights to areas likely to develop. That way farmers no longer have an incentive to sell their land, and residents can maintain their lifestyles.

The Ohio General Assembly passed legislation last year allowing local governments to pass tax increases to buy development rights from farmers. A few local governments have adopted the tax increases, figuring that the money can be spent either on saving farms or to pay for the wider roads, new schools and larger police forces needed to service new residents, according to an Associated Press report.

Chateau Lakes residents are working on their own ad hoc plan to save 3 1/2 acres of trees located next to the Geiler property. After learning that the owners wanted to build condominiums, Gardner and other neighborhood residents asked what it would take to prevent the rear from being developed. The owners' answer: $40,000. Nothing has been agreed to yet, but Gardner is encouraged a deal can be done.

So far the Geilers and their Chateau Lakes neighbors haven't reached any such compromise.

Gardner said he would rather see the Geilers plan an office building for the site, which would limit traffic to the daytime and provide a more stable tenant than a store. HQ and Roberds Grand have recently gone out of business in Greater Cincinnati, leaving behind hulking, empty buildings.

The Geilers are planning to build a storm-water retention pond at the property's rear that would filter silt from the stream. As planned, it could accommodate a 10-year storm, a term referring to the strongest storm likely to occur in any given decade.

Gardner wants the Geilers to build a better storm-water holding system under the planned store's parking lot, which he estimates will cost $100,000. That's cheaper than the $200,000 the Geilers would have to spend to connect to the county's sewer line, Gardner said.

"I think it's about time we have more than the minimums," he said. ©

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