Saturday, October 05, 2002

Suburbanites mobilizing on local issues

Backyard issues lay ground for grass roots

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FAIRFIELD - Neighbors stood one by one in council chambers, repeating the same demand: “No sludge pit!”

        But after months of debate, the city planning commission last month approved - with 16 conditions - the proposed 9-acre pit for lime residue at the Cincinnati Water Works plant on River Road, behind two subdivisions' upscale homes.

        Frustrated but not surprised, residents filtered out into the lobby, where “Plan B” immediately was launched: a referendum if Fairfield City Council does not overturn the decision this month. Neighbors plan to pack council chambers the night of the vote on the sludge pit, one of the most controversial issues to hit Fairfield in recent years.

        “The citizens will take control,” announced Gregory Sunday, vice president of the Monastery Homeowners Association. “The city of Fairfield's elected officials need to remember they were elected by the citizens of Fairfield to serve and protect the quality of life in the city of Fairfield.”

        From sludge pits to interchanges, suburbanites are mobilizing to make sure their interests are represented and, in many cases, are persuading leaders to see things their way.

        Soccer moms are learning zoning laws and golf buffs are becoming land-use experts, as new neighbors get to know each other at local government meetings or neighborhood organizing sessions where they are uniting to buck their elected leaders. Marathon government meetings, petition drives and neighborhood get-togethers are becoming commonplace as suburbanites, sometimes stereotyped as wrapped up in soccer practices and backyard barbecues in faceless neighborhoods, mobilize politically on local issues.

        In the Four Bridges subdivision in Liberty Township, residents want to better buffer their pricey homes against a proposed Interstate 75 interchange extension off the Michael A. Fox Highway - and all the new businesses it will bring. They haven't abandoned hopes of halting the project altogether, though they agree the road may be impossible to stop.

        “If we don't look out for ourselves, nobody else will,” says Four Bridges neighbor Birdie Wickerham. “Don't put a Wal-Mart in my back yard. We pay a considerable amount of taxes to live here and I should have some say over what happens.”

        In Deerfield Township, activists got a referendum on the November ballot asking to make the township the first in the state to expand from three to five trustees.

        Liberty has had two previous referendums, one successful in blocking a commercial development, the other, not.

        Across Butler County early this year, citizens rallied to head off a sales tax increase passed by commissioners.

        In Kentucky, neighbors in the renovated MainStrasse area in Covington rose up to fight a new county jail site, creating “Not Jail Bait!“ signs and T-shirts. One restaurant, Sonoma, put prison-stripe-clad dummies on its roof. The jail still has no site.

        And in Evendale, raucous demonstrations of support and opposition to Officer Stephen Roach have dominated Village Council meetings this year. The vocal opponents got so out of hand, Mayor Douglas Lohmeier stopped public comment in meetings this summer until tempers cooled.

        “Overall, I still think there's a long way to go,” Mr. Lohmeier said. “One of the biggest things we learned is different people have perspectives of understanding. People have different views. We never had people yell and scream at us like that. We have not had people be disruptive at meetings before. It surprised us at first.”

        Though Officer Roach remains on the Evendale force and is doing an excellent job - according to his performance evaluations - the Village Council is now reviewing its police hiring policies in light of the controversy and might alter them.

        Two communities are not pleased to see the interchange become Butler County and Liberty Township's top priority - Four Bridges and Evergreen Estates. Neighbors at Evergreen Estates, which also is near the proposed Cox Road extension, are even considering gating their subdivision to keep out cut-through traffic and increased crime they fear is guaranteed to come with the new interchange.

        To head off intrusiveness from impending development, Four Bridges residents are asking Liberty Township officials to increase buffering requirements between their homes - which range from $250,000 to $900,000 - and the proposed interchange, which would link eastward to an extended Cox Road.

        Mrs. Wickerham is a soccer mom turned zoning and tree expert. The Four Bridges homeowner spent several days recently phoning nurseries to find out which kinds of trees are best to buffer her and neighbors' homes from zooming cars and trucks. She also is one of about 15 Four Bridges residents on an action committee who now meet every Sunday night in their country club to discuss the issue and to hatch battle plans.

        “It's more than I would rather deal with,” she says. “I would much rather sit back and enjoy my children and my life and not worry about it. But unfortunately, it's not that simple. If you don't speak up and let them know this is unacceptable or this is what we would want, then they won't know.”

        In recent months in Fairfield, at least three issues have been quickly resolved through compromises when City Council members worked with residents and developers.

        Even with the sludge pit controversy that emerged this spring, though it now appears likely city officials will approve it, city officials have allowed for many public hearings and examination of the issue during the past four months.

        Fairfield Councilman Mark Scharringhausen says he is delighted to see the increased citizen turnout, estimating attendance at council meetings this year as increased two- or threefold. He attributes the dramatic rise in attention to three factors: residents more aggressively protecting their property values, being inspired by previous successful grass-roots efforts, and increased media attention on the suburbs.

        Elected leaders must have input from citizens, he says, to make the best-informed decisions regarding the fate of their community. Otherwise, he warns, the council members could decide against residents' wishes simply because they don't know any better.

        “We are seeing people play a more aggressive role in protecting their property and taking matters into their own hands to do that,” he said. “If we don't get that type of feedback up front, then we are liable to make that decision folks are going to be unhappy with.”

        Michael Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, agrees. It's only natural to see escalating residential interest in the decisions being made in their communities, he says, as the growing suburbs become a “mini-metro area.”

        “With all the growth in Warren and Butler counties, the metro area has expanded and government has to catch up with that,” says Mr. Margolis, of Covington. The only way that we count more or less equally is when we exercise our vote through the vote and at the local level, you can contact people.”

        Recent examples of neighbors fighting back

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