News: Area smart growth group gets $12K boost

If nothing else, the $12,000 recently granted to a local smart growth group will provide a better-looking package for their summer project. At best, the grant could spark a whole new level of debat

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If nothing else, the $12,000 recently granted to a local smart growth group will provide a better-looking package for their summer project.

At best, the grant could spark a whole new level of debate about planning in Greater Cincinnati.

Formed several months ago, the Smart Growth Coalition of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky is about to begin work on a smart growth plan for the region (see "New Regional Group Targets Sprawl," issue of Nov. 18-24). And just in time, a local private family foundation awarded the coalition $12,000 to further their work.

The coalition is preparing for months of research on topics such as:

· the role of mass transportation and

bicycles;

· the preservation of green space;

· the revitalization of inner suburbs;

· and what development should be

subsidized.

After holding a series of community meetings this summer, they plan to shape the public comments and their research into a document that recommends actions to create a more sustainable, less-sprawling Greater Cincinnati. It could be finished before the end of the year.

The foundation behind the grant hasn't decided whether or not to reveal itself, according to Catherine Hartman, the Smart Growth Coalition's president.

In any case, the money is still the coalition's first major grant. "It makes a huge difference to us because we're just starting out," Hartman said.

The coalition is so new that it hasn't yet achieved non-profit status in Ohio. Hartman expects that to happen within a couple of months, depending on how quickly the state of Ohio processes their application. After that, the group plans to apply for many more grants.

In its brief history, the coalition has attracted a variety of members, including planners, attorneys and environmentalists from around the region, of which about 30 to 50 attend monthly meetings. One of the larger bases of support comes from Boone County, where planning has been on the front burner for a few years. The coalition also shares members with the Concerned Citizens of Western Hamilton County, a group with similar concerns.

So why is there a Smart Growth Coalition? What drew these citizens together? Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club's Cincinnati office, said he believes many people have a problem with sprawling, unplanned, suburban growth. However, these people wrongly assume it's just the price of progress.

"I don't think there's any real planning," Hartman said, citing her home village of Evendale, where she is a council member, as an example.

"Evendale doesn't have a master plan, and a lot of communities don't have a master plan."

Greater Cincinnati and development decisions are often made on a case-by-case basis, without thought about the town as a whole. Then again, even if there Hartman convinced her colleagues to write one, it would only cover Evendale — a step in the right direction, but not a very big step.

"I think there should be a regional plan," Hartman said.

While the city and county carry out plans for riverfront development, the county is continuing years of work on a plan for Western Hamilton County, and a network of governments are studying light rail under the umbrella of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI). But there is no modern comprehensive plan for all of Hamilton County, much less the multiple-county Tristate region.

Instead, rural townships zone former farmland for development. Developers, armed with subsidies from local and state government for roads, water, and sewer lines, build farther out. The bottom line? One local government uses tax dollars to compete against another local government with little thought about the long-term consequences.

Without better planning, Hartman said, Greater Cincinnati could lose more of its character and charm. "I just don't want the Greater Cincinnati area to turn into a series of Colerain Avenues," Hartman said.

But when the Smart Growth Coalition finishes its report, will anyone listen? Critics might discount the report as biased and full of conclusions drawn long before the public meetings.

"I don't know how that's going to play out," Hartman said. "We don't want to become some little radical group that no one listens to." The point of the plan is to get people talking about transportation, development and planning as a whole, making these issues a high priority.

"In other places, these plans have really elevated the discussion," Brand said.

Often the debate between smart growth advocates and developers is reduced to a pro-growth/anti-growth, we-said/they-said debate. In reality, groups such as the coalition aren't universally opposed to development; they just want to make sure new, taxpayer-subsidized development doesn't hurt the malls and businesses already in another city or township.

Meanwhile, at least four new malls have been proposed for Butler and Warren Counties, all of which are within a 30-minute drive of existing malls, some of which are far from fully occupied. Two of the new malls — a 360,000 square-foot open-air mall and 850,000 square-foot indoor mall — would be located across the street from each other near Mason-Montgomery Road in southern Warren County.

The most controversial mall proposal hit a speed bump during a June 8 meeting of OKI's Executive Committee. For a proposed regional mall to be built off I-75 in Monroe, mall developer Taubman and Co. of Michigan needs a $23 million interchange to be built near Kyles Station Road, about one mile south of the proposed site, with the state paying about half of the cost.

But for a variety of reasons, the Executive Committee voted by a margin of about 35-1 to give the interchange its lowest priority out of six projects discussed at the meeting.

"It's a project that is not ripe yet," said Sterling Uhler, the committee's chair.

For mall backer and Monroe mayor, Elbert Tannreuther, who seconded the motion that downgraded the interchange, the vote was a trade-off. He said he believes the widening of I-75 from State Routes 129 to 122 — given the highest priority among the six projects discussed — will lead ODOT to help Monroe with congestion on State Route 63. That was worth sacrificing the proposed Kyles Station interchange, he said.

What remains to be seen, Uhler said, is whether or not the Ohio Department of Transportation's project selection committee — which has the final say — will listen to OKI's recommendations.

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