Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Farm's owner battles agency

By Ray Schaefer
Enquirer Contributor

        BELLEVIEW — Don Stites still isn't going to sell the farm his family has owned for 60 years.

        The agency that wants to build a $100 million waste-water treatment plant on his property still isn't backing off its belief the nearly 500 acres along the Ohio River near Petersburg is the best place in Boone County to locate the facility.

        Mr. Stites, 70, a retired P&G employee and his counsel, Cincinnati lawyer Robert Manley, have fired the latest salvo: They have presented the sanitation district with a 153-page feasibility study.

        The study, produced by Diversified Development Services and illustrated with full-color renderings and schematics, stated that the land could bring up to $101 million if a high-end subdivision and equestrian center are built.

        Mr. Stites, and the Sanitation District No. 1 of Campbell and Kenton Counties are arguing over the farm, located on Ky. 20 about 26 miles southwest of downtown Cincinnati and 9 miles southwest of Interstate 275.

        “The purpose of the study is to show what could be done with the property to ... convince the board of directors of the sanitation district to look elsewhere,” Mr. Stites said Monday.

        Mr. Stites said the study found the land could be used for a combination of things: an upscale subdivision; a golf course; horse stables and an equestrian training center.

        And the treatment plant? Mr. Stites pointed out four more deserted sites: one on East Bend Road near a power plant; south of Big Bone Lick State Park near Union; unspecified land near the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport or an unspecified location in Gallatin County.

        But Jeff Eger, sanitation district general manager, said the Stites report left him and the board of directors feeling “confused and curious.” He said the study violates a nondisclosure agreement the parties reached two years ago, when the sanitation district first announced it was going to seek a portion of the Stites' property by eminent domain.

        “We think Mr. Stites is trying to try this case in public by releasing this document,” Mr. Eger said.

        Mr. Manley said the agreement applied only to the sales price and not the potential economic impact. He said the study became a public document when he submitted it to the sanitation district and added there wouldn't be so much confusion if Mr. Eger and the board agreed to meet him.

        “They're trying to decide whether to talk to us and then sue us or sue us and don't talk to us,” Mr. Manley said.

        The Stites property is also a controversial site because many think it was chosen because a media executive opposed the sanitation district's first choice, a Cinergy Corp.-owned site near Rabbit Hash.

        Bill Burleigh, then president and chief executive officer of the E.W. Scripps Co., sent a letter to Cinergy Corp. Chairman James E. Rogers in January, 1999 that said a “public relations disaster” could take place if the utility sold land for a sewage treatment plant near his Rabbit Hash farm.

        Less than three weeks after receiving the letter from Mr. Burleigh on Scripps letterhead, and after getting several other letters of opposition, Cinergy decided not to sell the property and ended negotiations with Sanitation District No. 1.

        Mr. Burleigh, now retired, headed the company that owns the Cincinnati Post, the Kentucky Post and WCPO-TV (Channel 9) in Cincinnati. He has said in the past his letter spoke for itself and that no place in Boone County is appropriate for the waste-water treatment plant.

        The Stites family paid for the new study, but neither Mr. Stites nor Mr. Manley would disclose the cost. The Stites family report listed five reasons the treatment plant should not be built on the Stites land:

        • It exhibits “unique and exceptional potential for sensitive development.”

        • Residential development is a better idea because new water lines along Ky. 20 are to be extended in 2003.

        • It is inconsistent with goals of the Boone County Comprehensive Plan, which calls for less intrusive development in the western part of the county.

        • Critical and sensitive areas on the site should be preserved and enhanced as much as possible.

        • Any development plan should utilize the land's natural features.

        Boone County Administrator James Parsons would not comment on the study because he had not seen a copy. Judge-executive Gary Moore, in Washington, D.C. for an OKI national meeting, said the county had commissioned its own report in 2000 to verify that the sanitation district's engineers' recommendations were on target.

        The sanitation district wants a 150-acre plot on the southern end of the Stites property for the waste-water treatment plant.

        Mr. Stites said the plant would take about 95 acres on which corn, soybeans and tobacco are now raised.

        In addition to the treatment plant, Mr. Eger said, a pumping station along Gunpowder Creek on Pleasant Valley Road would be built.

        The judge-executives in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties approved the plan last July. Mr. Eger also said the land is ideal because the district can receive supplies via barge.

        Mr. Stites lives in Wyoming, Ohio, but he said his family has planted 2,000 trees, cleared a mile of fence rows and added bluebird houses.

        Mr. Eger's response: The study and expected economic impact are based on an unofficial appraisal. He would not disclose the sanitation district's offer, but he said it was based on a 1999 appraisal completed when negotiations began.

        Besides, Mr. Eger isn't sure people would come so far into the country to an equestrian center.

        “There have been equestrian sites closer to populated areas that have failed,” Mr. Eger said.

        The chance of resolving the dispute outside of Boone Circuit Court anytime soon seems remote.

        The Kentucky Division of Water has to approve plans for the $100 million plant (Mr. Eger said he should know something by May), and the sanitation district has not started proceedings to condemn the land.


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