Deerfield Twp., Mason need to talk

Friday, May 15, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's been a wild week in Deerfield Township, a battle of emotions waged over vanishing land and the future of a fire department.

Deerfield Township feels it's in a fight for its life against the city of Mason, which has been annexing one piece of land after another. The latest tussle is over controlling and funding the Mason-Deerfield Joint Fire District that protects both communities. Warren County commissioners waded into the fray this week threatening to dissolve the township. That made residents even madder.

"I'll fight them trying to close us down with my dying breath," Trustee Bill Morand told me.

The argument over the fire department is the latest in a series of confrontations over power and tax money between the city and township. Things got very heated last year when Mason annexed Kings Island from the township so the city could profit from the amusement park's tax revenues.

Money can heat things up. But after driving around the township's farms, homes, businesses and construction sites yesterday, I think the conflict runs deeper, especially for the long-time farmers and suburban newcomers who live in and run the township.

The conflict is getting personal. It's about their sense of place and way of government. In Deerfield Township, government is neighbor to neighbor.

That's why they get so mad when city or county bureaucrats take their land or tell them what to do.

Township tour

To catch up on life in Deerfield Township, I asked Lee Speidel, a 31-year resident, for a guided tour.

"Be glad to," said the farmer who dabbles in area history and serves on the township's zoning commission.

Lee showed me around this week in his Ford pickup, down unpaved drives and smoggy expressways. We passed huge factories and one-room churches, rows of modest century-old frame houses and subdivisions of new mansions costing in the hundreds of thousands. On both sides of the roads, old farms were being gobbled up for new homes, plants and stores.

Passing a "Welcome to Mason" sign, Lee noted, "we are now entering enemy territory."

Lee's not against cities or development. "After Kings Island opened, we knew change was inevitable."

On one level, this battle is about money. Standing in the township's strip-mall office, Trustee Larry Backus told me, "we had $100 million in development last year. We expect $100 million this year."

On another level, Lee Speidel said, it's about grass-roots government. "The township provides roads, sewers, water, police, fire protection. Trustees work part-time and only get $8,000 a year. They give us the most services for the least amount of bureaucracy."

And grass-roots government is pretty personal, with strong feelings just below the surface.

After 19 years as a trustee, Bob Carter is back to farming. We found him mowing a field near his house. Parking his John Deere by a weathered barn with a "Chew Mail Pouch" sign, Bob watched as a storm blew up and the rain came down.

On the horizon, dark clouds met his wheat field and a neighboring row of new, expensive houses. He searched for the words to describe Deerfield Township's identity.

"The township is beautiful, rolling fields, nice houses and people like me who want to be left alone, who work hard, are proud of what they have and are too humble to brag."

End the fight

Mason's mayor, Betty Davis, admits the city-township battle is heated. Talking Thursday she told me she sees no room for compromise. Still, she would like the city and the township to "stop quibbling like immature two-year-olds."

In January, Deerfield trustee Larry Backus proposed the city and township take their differences to a mediator. Mason's city council rejected the idea.

Maybe Mason underestimates how deep township feelings run. Nothing good can come from bulldozing people's feelings. Now that fire protection has been swept up into the battle, it's time to talk.

Managing development is tough enough when everyone is civil and working together. It's impossible when the discussion turns to threats and shouts.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.