Wednesday, May 23, 2001

West Chester's boom strains roads, services

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WEST CHESTER TWP. — This southeastern Butler County township has been on a 30-year growth spurt.

        During that time, West Chester Township has changed from a placid farming community to a bustling area where subdivisions and commercial projects — from fast-food restaurants to corner shopping centers — have popped up like wildflowers.

        The population has more than quadrupled, the police force has multiplied and still isn't big enough and the township's total assessed property value has rocketed to $1.5 billion — the highest among Ohio's 1,310 townships.

[photo] A new 330-acre park with playing fields at the old Voice of America site has helped relieve some of the demand for recreation for the increasing population. On Tuesday, Lakota Storm soccer coach Scott Brown explained a drill to player Lance Sprague. Plans are in the works for a new park and hiking and biking trails.
(michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        The landscape is not the only thing that's changed. So, too, have lifestyles. The prodigious growth has placed greater demands on roads, utilities, police and fire departments, schools and other services.

        The result: Taxpayers are being forced to dig deeper to accommodate the surge in population and development.

        “More and more people are moving here from the cities, and they demand the same level of services they received in the cities,” said Dave Gully, West Chester Township administrator. “We just have to get smarter every year.”

        The signs of growth in West Chester during the past 10 years are dramatic:

        • The population jumped 38 percent — from 39,703 to 54,895.

        • Police calls have more than doubled, reaching almost 50,000 per year.

        • Fire and life squad calls also have doubled, to about 6,000 per year.

        • It costs most to run the township annually — from $4.7 million to $18.1 million.

        • The township's total assessed property value increased from $858 million to $1.5 billion.

        But to many residents, the most obvious and annoying signs of growth come on four wheels. More cars, trucks and SUVs have spelled more traffic congestion.

        Few know this better than Gene Rosselot, who lives in the old Cincinnati-Dayton Road farmhouse he was born in 82 years ago.

        “Traffic is the worst,” he said. “In the morning and afternoon rush hours, it's bumper-to-bumper out here.”

        Another township resident, Bob Cooney, also cites traffic as his biggest complaint.

        “They started building houses without building the roads,” he said.

        But the township, the county and the Butler County Transportation Improvement District have taken steps in recent years to ease the traffic problems.

        They have widened many roads and improved major intersections. Right now, major road projects costing more than $24 million are under way:

        • Cincinnati-Dayton Road, which is attracting an increasing amount of commercial development, is being widened from two to five lanes from I-75 to Tylersville Road and to four lanes from Tylersville to Mauds Hughes Road.

        • West Chester Road is being widened to three lanes from I-75 to Beckett Road. There are plans to widen Ohio 747 from just south of Smith Road to Tylersville Road.

        • Symmes Road is being extended from Ohio 747 to Seward Road.

        “We still have a lot of old two-lane roads,” said Anne Koliboski, a township resident. “But the roads are much better than they were a few years ago. Township and county officials are thinking ahead now instead of just reacting.”

        For some, relief will not come fast enough.

        “We're astounded by the traffic, even in our subdivisions,” said Ray Bowman, who moved to West Chester in 1971 - when it was home to about 8,000 people. “No matter what time, it's just a constant string of cars. That's been a bit of a disappointment.”

Public safety concerns
        Besides extensive road improvements, the township's booming population also has forced West Chester's police and fire department to expand.

        In the past seven years, the police force has grown from 38 to 71 employees. But Police Chief John Bruce said that's not nearly enough.

        “We're one of the most understaffed police departments in the region,” he said.

        West Chester — called Union Township until a name change last year — has 1.3 officers per 1,000 residents. That's less than half of what the federal government recommends for Midwestern communities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000, Chief Bruce said.

   West Chester Township population:
    2000 — 54,895
    1995 — 44,179(estimated)
    1990 — 39,703
    1980 — 23,553
    1970 — 12,795
        Last November, West Chester voters approved a 4.5-mill replacement police levy, but rejected a new 2.5-mill police levy. That new levy would have generated an additional $3 million to beef up the police force.

        “We can't operate forever on the same amount of money and expect not to cut services,” Chief Bruce said. “But we'll try to do the best with whatever we have available.”

        The fire department is in better shape. A passage of a 4.5-mill fire levy to replace an expiring 3.5-mill levy has provided the money needed to expand staff and facilities.

        The department opened two new fire stations in 1999 and has remodeled and enlarged two others. A new station will be built to replace an existing one on John Road.

        In the past 10 years, the department's staff has grown from 70 to 145 employees.

        Residents know they are footing the bill through higher property taxes.

        “If you analyze the bill you'll see the majority of it is for schools,” Mr. Bowman said. “For many years we built two new schools a year, so our taxes, naturally, have increased substantially. I complain about it, but I wouldn't trade it.”

Finding more water
        Another resource in West Chester that's expanded significantly is the sewer and water systems.

        Water-use restrictions used to be an annual summer occurrence in West Chester during dry spells. But in the past five years, Butler County has built more water storage tanks in West Chester to eliminate the problem.

        The only drawback is that the average residential county water user pays $120 per quarter, one of the highest rates in Ohio.

        As Butler County fights Hamilton, its chief water supplier, in the courts, West Chester has considered forming a new water district with other townships. But the costs of buying and maintaining the county's water system concern township officials.

        “Other areas have found out that it's an expensive venture to get into,” said West Chester Township Trustee Jose Alvarez. “It would give us more control of our destiny. But if it doesn't bring down the water rates, I'm not sure our citizens would care.”

        The influx of so many people into West Chester also created more demands for parks and recreation facilities.

        Recognizing this need, township trustees created the position of parks and recreation director 1 1/2 years ago and hired Bill Zerkle to fill it.

        In two years, the township's park land has increased from 170 acres to 630 acres.

        Of that land, 330 acres is on the former Voice of America property on Cox Road. The placement of soccer and baseball fields in this park in the past year has helped relieve the serious shortage of fields for youth soccer and baseball teams.

        West Chester is completing a plan for a new park at Beckett Road and Union Centre Boulevard and hopes to create a system of bike/hike paths to connect all its parks.

        To help pay for improvements in all its services, the township has been trying to attract more commercial and industrial development.

        Union Centre Boulevard at I-75 has proven to be a magnet for such development. It's part of Butler's undeveloped land along I-75 that some refer to as the county's “Gold Coast.”

        “We've really gone out of our way to encourage a wide variety of commercial enterprises,” said West Chester Township Trustee Catherine Stoker. “We didn't want to be caught in an industry-specific economic downturn, like some areas have been.”

        For years, the township has wrestled with the idea of incorporating and becoming a city. It would allow West Chester to bolster its coffers with earnings-tax revenue.

        West Chester voters turned down incorporation proposals in 1988, 1989 and 1993. The 1993 proposal was rejected by 375 votes, out of about 10,000 cast.

        Many township officials believe the issue will surface again.

        “Any community that is our size and is unincorporated won't be able to support itself eventually,” Mr. Gully said. “Our work force is increasing, but the earnings taxes they're paying are going to their home communities and are not being kept by the township.”

        As the township growth continues, he said, it will become more critical to capture that lost stream of revenue.

        “We'll have to make a hard decision at some point to become a city or remain a township,” he said.

        Decades ago, the idea of West Chester becoming a city would have been laughable to the many farming families who lived there then.

        Mr. Rosselot, whose son, Jim, operates the family farm and a garden and landscaping business, regrets the passing of the township's agricultural life.

        But he stoically accepts the inevitability of more growth and more changes in his community.

        “You can't stop it,” he said. “It's the natural way of things.”

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