Thursday, January 9, 2003

Warren growth showdown is tonight

Commissioners look at tightening requirements

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON - A showdown over attempts to slow development in the Tristate's fastest-growing county looms this evening.

The Warren County Commission has signaled it wants to slow the pace of residential development, setting up a clash with builders eager to turn farmland into lucrative neighborhoods. Robert C. Rhein Interests Inc. wants to build a 390-home subdivision on 140 acres off Butler-Warren Road between Bethany and Hamilton (Kyles Station) roads in Turtlecreek Township. That is about 2.8 units per acre.

But commissioners could halt new home developments in five of the county's townships - at least for now. They want to require larger lots and more open space for new subdivisions and are expected to pass a resolution soon to initiate a zoning change.

Commissioner Mike Kilburn has led opposition to the Rhein subdivision, and the other two commissioners appeared to be leaning that way on Wednesday. .

"We have some tough decisions ahead of us," Commissioner Larry Crisenbery said Wednesday. "The next four to five years are critical to Warren County the way it's developed. I don't want to see it as a Blue Ash - nothing but concrete and asphalt. That is exactly why we are getting the influx of all these people, because they are moving out of that to see some green space."

Situated between Cincinnati and Dayton along Interstate 71, Warren County is the second-fastest growing county in the state with about 171,000 residents, up from 113,927 in 1990.

One of the few ways commissioners legally can curtail new subdivisions until the tougher guidelines are in place is to not rezone land for new subdivisions.

Last month, under threat of litigation, the commissioners reversed course and approved the layout of a new Hamilton Township subdivision.

Mr. Kilburn and Mr. Crisenbery originally refused to approve a 58-lot plat, or layout, for section five of the 877-home Regency Park subdivision.

But Assistant Prosecutor Bruce McGary told commissioners they have no discretion over signing the plats because the township approved the zoning and the Regional Planning Commission ruled that the plat met subdivision requirements.

Commissioner Pat South suggested Wednesday that the county won't rezone land for any proposed new subdivisions until the county tightens requirements for new homes to curtail runaway residential development and have better growth management.

"At this point, any new housing development coming before us is going to catch scrutiny," Ms. South said. "Unfortunately for developers, one of the tools we have available to help buy us some more time to get our planning work done ... is to not approve rezonings that would allow for higher densities than maybe what the existing zoning offers."

So, she added: "I don't look for (tonight's) meeting, at least from my perspective, to meet with the approval of the developer."

Approving the Rhein subdivision, Mr. Crisenbery contends, would usher in scores of new homes in an area ill-prepared to handle the growth. Traffic gridlock and school crowding are chief concerns.

"This is a double-, triple-edged sword on our part either way you look at it," Mr. Crisenbery said. "I realize everyone has a right to sell their land and reap benefits off it, but I also know that Butler-Warren Road is a little two-lane road. This development would bring about 1,800 cars a day."

Butler County likely would be asked to supply water and sewer lines to the subdivision if approved because neither Warren County nor Mason can, Mr. Crisenbery noted. The land abuts Butler's Liberty Township to the west.

The city of Mason would have to make a large capital expenditure to get sewer lines out that far, officials say, and Warren County doesn't have a treatment plant in that area.

Robert Leventry, the head of Butler County Environmental Services, said Wednesday he has told Rhein that Butler has the capacity to handle the water and sewer for that area. But Warren County would have to agree to allow Butler to provide the service.

Once those sewer lines are laid - depending how far they extended into Warren County and/or Liberty Township - that would all but guarantee mass home development in that area, Mr. Crisenbery and county planners note.

"If this is passed and the sewers are put in, the floodgates will open," Mr. Crisenbery said.

Liberty officials also say they have serious concerns about the proposed neighborhood.

They say the increased traffic is sure to clog their two-lane country roads and the township's main north-south artery, Cincinnati-Dayton Road.

"This scares the daylights out of me," Liberty Trustee Bob Shelley said. "Traffic tie-ups also are irritating to some longtime Warren residents who are fed up with seeing new subdivisions pop up.

"We who have lived here for a number of years know what rural means and also what it does not mean," Cathryn Hilker, 71, wrote in a recent letter to the commissioners.

"It does not mean cookie-cutter houses and starter mansions stacked one next to the other and it certainly does not mean the stacked row houses lining Butler-Warren Road," she wrote. "Let's not give everything away. Let's have the courage to have acreage size that reflects some basic land values."

Phone calls to Rhein and the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati were not returned Wednesday.

But homebuilders previously have maintained that increasing lot sizes will raise the cost of homes, reducing affordable housing in the suburbs.


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