Sunday, December 12, 1999

Neighbors fighting neighbors in sliced-up Lemon Township

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MONROE — It's like a giant jigsaw puzzle, with most of the pieces missing. Lemon Township, which once measured 36 square miles, has been sliced and diced down to five small pieces, totaling about 3 square miles.

        Annexation fights between cities and townships in the Tristate are common in this era of rapid growth. But Lemon is the Incredible Shrinking Township, in danger of being annexed to death. As the growth boom sweeps the Monroe area near Interstate 75, the fate of the two largest remaining slices of Lemon is in doubt — pitting local government against local government and even neighbor against neighbor.

        “Middletown wants one part of the township, Monroe wants another, now some say Liberty is trying to woo people to that township. It's like they're all picking over our bones and we're not even dead yet,” said Carl Hollon, township trustee.

        Monroe and Liberty Township are courting residents for the large section that cuts a swath through the middle of Monroe. Middletown is ready to gobble up the other — several acres around Engle's Corner in the southwest edge of the city.

        Some residents are fighting to stay within a township, while others are working to be annexed into a city.

        Monroe and Middletown officials say they want pieces of the Lemon Township puzzle to fill in the gaps in their borders. Liberty officials say they're not making overtures, but just letting residents know they're welcome there if that's their choice.

        “But everybody takes what they want and leaves the rest — that leaves neighbors fighting neighbors. That's a shame,” Mr. Hollon said. He lives in the proposed Monroe annexation area and admits he favors annexation into the city. He and other trustees readily, though somewhat sadly, admit the township's days are numbered.

        Monroe Mayor Elbert Tannreuther said it's long been evident Lemon is headed for extinction, and his city wants to be ready before the death knell tolls.

        “What we're basically trying to do is protect our borders,” Mayor Tannreuther said. “That portion of Lemon is right in the middle of the city (which is about 90 percent in the township). We'd certainly like to have those people be a part of Monroe if they choose.”

        Lemon Township was Butler County's most populated township as late as 1964, with 12,940 residents.

        Annexations have sliced it to about 2,000 residents in the unincorporated sections. Most are in the Engle's Corner area, said Jim Croucher, a former township trustee for 18 years, whose wife, Elsa, has been on the board four years.

        For several years, the township has contracted with Monroe for all services — police, fire, emergency medical and road maintenance, Mr. Croucher said. The last annexation was in August, when Monroe acquired 164 acres along Ohio 4.

        “What's happened to Lemon Township is deplorable, and it all lays at the feet of the current annexation law,” said Mike Cochran, executive director of the Ohio Township Association. His group has been promoting efforts to strengthen townships' ability to ward off annexations.

        Some residents are already circulating annexation petitions, trying to gain enough signatures to get the 1,000-plus-acre section in the middle of Monroe annexed into the city.

        But others, primarily the farmers with the larger properties, are not ready to become citified.

        Deborah and Rodney Barker of Yankee Road are leading the Monroe annexation drive.

        “We have about 15 signatures,” Mr. Barker said. “I think most of the people we talked to signed. I'm hearing that 70 to 80 percent want to go to the city. At first people were backing off.”

        But in recent weeks, a fact sheet from Monroe, coupled with some residents seeing wells go dry, changed some minds, Mr. Barker said. There are 71 owners of 45 parcels of land in the proposed annex area , meaning 36 signatures are needed to proceed with the annexation, he said.

        The Barkers and other residents say that for most people, the main issues are having police, fire and emergency medical services close at hand, which should protect property values and insurance rates. Also, many residents on wells want to tap into water lines, and believe Monroe's lines will make that cheaper and easier.

        The farmers, including major property owners and cousins Bob and Don Garver, declined to comment. But neighbors and Liberty Township officials say the farmers have indicated their choice is to preserve Lemon Township.

        And if that's impossible, they prefer to go to Liberty Township.

        “I don't have any answers for those farmers who want to stay in a township,” Mr. Hollon said. “I understand their dilemma. They want Monroe services but don't want to be in the city limits. Even if I could wave my magic wand — I'd not fight to keep the township. There's nothing to fight for.”

        To answer the many questions, Monroe sent a fact sheet to residents stating that annexation to Monroe would mean no change in police, fire and emergency medical service because Lemon already contracts with the city for all those services. If the residents end up in Liberty, the letter said, fire service would come from that township. It offers reassurance that Monroe is committed to preserving farmland, and that residents could tap into nearby city water through a special assessment.

        It also includes a kicker.

        “If you, the residents, should choose not to annex to Monroe, the city plans to withdraw from Lemon Township, which could cause the township to be dissolved.”

        And if the city withdraws, Monroe will cancel all service contracts with the township, the letter said.

        Some of the larger farmers asked Liberty Township to provide information on what to expect if city annexation fails and they could eventually become a part of Liberty, said Nell Kilpatrick, Liberty township administrator.

        Liberty responded with its own fact sheet at the request of residents, Ms. Kilpatrick said.

        Liberty's letter, “to clarify your options,” describes the large fire and emergency medical services staff and facilities that serve the township, and the 13 full-time Butler County sheriff's deputies that work exclusively in Liberty from a substation on Princeton Road.

        It says residents could get water service from Butler County, the township has no earnings tax, 48 percent of Liberty's land is used for agriculture, and Lemon farmland would retain its zoning.

        “We would like for you to know that we would gladly welcome you into Liberty Township, if you prefer remaining in an unincorporated area and with a township form of government,” it said.

        That letter rankled Monroe and Lemon Township officials.

        “I don't see what Liberty Township is doing coming around trying to get people out of our township to come to Liberty,” Mr. Hollon said.

        “I think they're completely out of line by sending this letter to Lemon Township residents,” Mr. Tannreuther said. “I think Liberty Township's ploy is they see this as a great industrial base for somebody that doesn't have any.”

        Ms. Kilpatrick adamantly denied that Liberty is enticing residents.

        “We're certainly not out here trying to take anything from Monroe,” she said. “Some of the larger property owners approached us. They say they like the township form of government, and they'd like to stay in a township. We put out the fact sheet because we heard erroneous information was circulating.”

        “It's like buzzards hovering over us,” said Mr. Croucher.

        The new millennium will likely bring another annexation drive.

        Middletown City Manager Ron Olson said city commissioners indicate they want to start pursuing annexation efforts in early 2000 for the Engle's Corner section — several acres in the city's southwest corner. That would not only square off city boundaries, it also would provide open space for future development, he said.

        Monroe has agreed not to challenge Middletown for that portion of the township, which includes homes, a few businesses, farms, residences and vacant land.


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