News: Sewers and Smoke Screens

Environmentalists and residents claim sprawl now is destined under an 'advisory only' growth plan that will bring infrastructure and congestion

Jul 8, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Glen Brand, Sierra Club spokesman, says that without clear direction, sprawl will be inevitable.

Sewers have become the enemy to residents who are fighting Hamilton County's proposed plan for western Hamilton County development.

And on July 1, a Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission vote made a bad development plan worse, say members of the Sierra Club who have joined Concerned Citizens of Western Hamilton County in fighting county development plans for their area. Instead of outlining how a proposal for moderate to aggressive growth would be enforced, the commission voted to make the plan advisory only. What that means, says Sierra Club spokesman Glen Brand, is that urban sprawl will be inevitable in western Hamilton County.

"This is the worst of all things that could have happened," he says. "By doing this, the planning commission has given the Hamilton County commissioners political coverage to go ahead with infrastructure. But now there is no control over where it will go and how much."

Sewers, a major part of that infrastrucure, will come at the residents' expense and to the developers' benefit, residents and the Sierra Club say.

But, health officials say the truth of the matter is that public sewers are needed in western Hamilton County to curb a rising health threat.

"We have been working on making an inventory and evaluating private sewage systems over several years and there have been major improvements," said Tim Ingram, commissioner of the Hamilton County General Health District.

But some areas of western Hamilton County are in desperate need of a public sewer system that can be maintained to keep up with water quality regulations, Ingram said. When not properly maintained, the private sewage systems in use can spew raw sewage into creeks and ditches.

The Western Hamilton County Collaborative Plan proposes infrastructure and development in western Hamilton County through 2020. The planning process was begun three years ago by the county planners and commissioners who said planned, orderly development was needed keep residents and their tax dollars from leaving the county.

Protesting residents from Green, Harrison, Miami, Colerain, Whitewater and Crosby townships, the villages of Addyston, Cleves and Northbend and the city of Harrison have argued that public sewers are not needed because private sewage systems are well-maintained.

But Ingram says that in certain areas of Green and Miami townships, this simply is not true.

"We do have streets in Hamilton County that need to be sewered because it has become a matter of health concern," Ingram said.

In fact, Valley Ridge Road in Green Township has been declared a public health hazard because of the high level of pollution and disease-causing material from private sewage systems, he says.

Ingram launched an aggressive program to survey and evaluate private sewage disposal systems when he became commissioner in 1993.

The program followed controversy over mismanagement in the health district and its lax enforcement of sewage regulations.

There are two types of sewage systems that the health district has catalogued. The home aeration type treats sewage mechanically and discharges supposedly treated waste water, or effluent, to creeks, yards and ditches. This type was the biggest polluter when the program began, Ingram said. In 1993, home aeration systems surveyed had a 60 percent failure rate, which because of the county's enforcement program, has dropped to 6 percent.

But the other type of systems — septic systems — are non-mechanical and allow waste water to be absorbed into the soil, still have a 20 percent failure rate, Ingram said.

"If this type of disposal system fails, it means that waste water is just floating on the surface of the back yard or possibly a neighbor's yard," Ingram said.

The Sierra Club has joined Concerned Citizens of Western Hamilton County, who are more than 500 members strong and have packed commissioners' meetings in protest, fighting the plan of high-density residential and industrial development and, subsequently, the proposed sewer system.

"We understand that there is a sewer problem out there, but the problem is being used as a smoke screen," says Glen Brand, director of the Cincinnati Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Although some private sewer systems are causing environmental and health concerns, there will be a terrible backlash from the aggressive, uncontrolled development, Brand says.

Brand says the biggest danger is urban sprawl. Residents, he says, are most fearful about the sewer systems because they have seen the sprawl that occurs in rural areas.

"They have seen that sewer systems can set sprawl on fire," he says.

Implementing a smart-growth land use plan, which promotes sustainable patterns of development, and a vote to make it enforceable would help save the natural resources and the rural landscape that the residents fear losing, Brand says.

But John Dowlin, county commissioner, says the planning commission made a wise decision in making the plan one that local governments could follow if they chose to.

"We didn't want this plan to usurp their power," Dowlin says.

Residents who have protested fear the traffic congestion and air pollution that plagues other communities.

Bill Miller, regional planning manager for Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, says that urban sprawl has increased dramatically over the past 10 years.

The increase in sprawl has started making ideas like smart growth more than just a platform for the environmentally savvy, he says.

There should be room to compromise between low-growth and the proposed moderate- to aggressive-growth plan, he says.

But regardless of whether such a compromise happens, public sewers are essential, he says.

"Having a plan is always the best way to go," Miller says. "But it is up to the political will to see if they get it done." ©