Thursday, February 07, 2002

Wharf development upsets Camp Dennison

Planners, neighbors clash over pricey homes at gravel pit.

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SYMMES TOWNSHIP — The land surrounding the lake looks neglected and uninviting. Piles of sand and crushed rock crowd the shoreline. Tall, rusted metal structures dot the terrain.

        Developer Darrell Leibson surveys the scene and sees something entirely different: Swimmers dozing on sandy beaches. Ducks and sailboats gliding across the lake's clean waters. Million-dollar homes sitting on 1-acre lots in a swank, urbanist complex called The Wharf at Symmes.

        But nearby residents in Camp Dennison don't share that vision. Instead, they foresee sewage-tainted waters, traffic-choked roads and an end to their peaceful, historic neighborhood, tucked in a small corner of the township bordered by a bend in the Little Miami River.

        “Right now, it's a quiet little community that's been overlooked. It would go from that to a Montgomery-type of community with lots of traffic on the highways,” said Michael Howell, the Camp Dennison Civic League president who is leading a group of about 50 protesters. Members voiced their concerns for two hours at a Tuesday night township trustees meeting.

        They are searching for a lawyer to help them stop Mr. Leibson's $200 million project that would convert a gravel pit into a grand-scale, luxury-home community sitting on two pristine lakes.

        Never before in Greater Cincinnati has so much industrial land been converted into residential use.

        “This development seems very ambitious,” Mr. Howell said. “Housing would increase 10 percent in Symmes Township. That 10 percent increase would just be in our little area.”

        Township officials will take their first official look at the project on Feb. 13. Suspicion is rife: Mr. Leibson sits on the township zoning commission. He is supposed to excuse himself from any votes on the project, but some residents claim that township trustees already have publicly endorsed it.

        In a Jan. 19 letter to county commissioners, trustees Board President Eric Minamyer doesn't mention the proposed project by name, but urges commissioners to “encourage development ... in the historic Camp Dennison neighborhood.”

        “The township board would request the county commissioners assist us in ensuring that future water service would be provided to any future development,” the letter said. “The Symmes Township Board of Trustees is committed to do whatever we can to ensure appropriate development takes place within our township.”

Lakeside lifestyle

        Mr. Leibson, president of Brownstone Development Corp., and Tim and Greg Hensley of Hensley Homes Inc., learned late last year that Martin Marietta Corp. was accepting bids for property along Ohio 126, between Fletcher Road and Zumstein Avenue.

        They saw a perfect opportunity to turn 340 weed-choked, industrial acres into a lakefront community for wealthy homeowners eager to have the best of both worlds: a waterfront playground and a safe village environment, with front porches looking over lapping lake waters, smaller streets fashioned in a traditional grid, and neat alleys behind the homes.

        “It's hard to imagine, but blink your eyes and all of this is gone,” said Mr. Leibson, driving on the property now owned by Martin Marietta Aggregate's MidAmerica Division, based in Mason.

        Where dust now permeates the air, residents will enjoy long summer evenings strolling the self-contained community's main attractions: a wharf, village, beaches and park land.

        Developers are promoting The Wharf at Symmes as reminiscent of Seaside, a pastel-cottage community that is touted as an urban planning achievement. On Florida's Gulf Coast, residents play in the surf, walk or bike to the town's center and explore shops and restaurants in this self-contained community.

        The Symmes Township developers envision up to 600 homes, valued at $300,000 to $1 million. There are now 5,467 homes in the township. They generally sell for $200,000 to $400,000, real estate agents said.

        Regarding the civic league's concerns, Mr. Leibson said: “Any time there's any change, people have trouble. It's human nature. (But) we need to look at the broader picture. What I'm trying to do is provide a wonderful waterfront community. The question is: Are you in or are you out?”

        Mr. Leibson and the Hensleys also emphasize that their project could eventually generate $600,000 in township taxes, $600,000 in county taxes and $1.5 million for Indian Hill schools.

        They have until October, when their purchase option expires, to get zoning approved by both township and county officials. They will seek a “community unit plan” that will allow 3.1 housing units per acre. Their biggest challenge is lining up sewer and water services for the property. They are negotiating with several area utilities.

        They also must receive permits from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

        Elda Marshall, executive director for the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati, said she has never heard of a local developer transforming a gravel pit into a luxury housing complex. She has been in the region for a quarter-century.

        “If anybody can do it, I believe Darrell can. He's just a good developer and he wants to make this work. The plans are tremendous. I don't know why it wouldn't be environmentally sound.”

        The challenge of finding open, desirable land in the county's northeast sector has forced developers to be more resourceful.

        The east “is getting developed to Clermont and way up into Warren County. It's all moving out. You just have to be more creative,” Ms. Marshall said.

Concerns spreading

        Tiny Camp Dennison has sat on the edge of obscurity for generations. It is named after its Civil War encampment, and is home to the Ohio Civil War Museum, which opened in the late 1990s.

        The community, bisected by Ohio 126, has about 400 residents living in mostly older, modestly priced homes.

        Resident Leah Evans calls Camp Dennison one of the “best-kept secrets” in the region.

        “It's a nice community. I don't mind sharing it,” she said. “What bothers me is the affordability of that property. Maybe people do have that kind of money. I keep looking out (my window) more because (soon) it won't be there.”

        Concern over the project extends beyond Camp Dennison. Some residents of nearby Indian Hill also are worried that the proposed development would crowd their schools.

        City Manager Michael Burns opposes the project and will fight the possibility of the city supplying water to the new development. He is concerned that lawn chemicals will seep into the lake and consequently contaminate the underground water supply.

        “There's some real drawbacks to building homes around a gravel pit that's ostensibly an exposed aquifer,” he said.

        Frank Tingley, 79, a long-time Camp Dennison resident also worries about the project's environmental impact.

        “The problem is that, with 600 dwellings, you're bound to have 250,000 gallons of sewage a day. We're going to object to it any chance we get,” he said.


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