By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer
GREEN TWP. - It's a familiar drama: Developers bulldoze tree-covered hillsides to make way for hundreds of houses, stores and fast-food restaurants while neighbors and anti-sprawl activists protest in vain. But the latest scenario isn't in Mason or West Chester, it's in western Hamilton County.
Specifically, this burst of activity is happening around the conjunction of Harrison Avenue and Rybolt Road and Interstate 74, just 10 minutes west of downtown Cincinnati.
The area is one of the hilliest parts of Hamilton County and, until recently, one of the least disturbed. Now it's one of the fastest growing.
As a result, Green Township residents are facing the same quality-of-life issues - and the same "sprawl" label - that rapid development has brought to Hamilton County's northern neighbors. Traffic congestion and environmental concerns have become a fact of daily life, but the growth also means lower taxes and better shopping.
"It's been a modest growth rate that has kept Green Township property taxes at an effective rate of about 5.5 mills, which is probably the best of any township in Hamilton County," Township Trustee Tony Upton says.
Bob Schilling, a retiree whose Eaglesnest condo overlooks much of the building activity, has taken the lead in fighting development.
"When you look at the whole picture, there's the minimum of planning," he says. "They don't look more than two weeks ahead."
What Schilling sees from his back deck, through the thin band of trees that developers haven't touched, is a new Kohl's department store and construction on a Meijer and a Longhorn Steakhouse. Four earth-movers are carving into the hill beneath his condo to make space for Skyline Chili, Wendy's and White Castle.
The two sites on either side of Harrison Avenue tally up to 44 acres that have been stripped of hundreds of trees in the past two years.
They also add up to the township's most significant commercial growth in 30 years, township Economic Development Director Adam Goetzman says.
"It isn't overly glamorous, but it reflects west-side values," he says.
Green's new-home market is booming, too. The township, already the second largest in Ohio with 55,660 people, gained 242 single-family homes in 2002. That's less than the 325 built in Warren County's Deerfield Township, but far more than any other Hamilton County township. Green Township also outpaced all Hamilton County townships with 386 new condos and apartments last year.
Two subdivisions already under construction - Autumn Oak and Monte Vista - and a proposed Fischer Homes development could combine for an additional 1,000 homes and condos by 2010 in this one small corner of the township.
It started with sewers
The transformation began in 2001 when the Metropolitan Sewer District finished building sewer lines on Harrison and Rybolt that opened land to large-scale commercial and residential development for the first time.
"It's along Harrison, which is a major thoroughfare," County Commissioner John Dowlin says in explaining why he supported the new sewers. "That seems very appropriate to me."
The new subdivisions are upscale. Monte Vista - the Greater Cincinnati Home Builders Association's pick for best small development in 2002 - is reminiscent of a new Warren County subdivision with its waterfalls, heated pools and racquetball court. Homes are expected to sell for up to half a million dollars.
The development and several similar ones in the works off of Harrison and Rybolt could help keep affluent families and empty nesters in Hamilton County. Longtime west-siders Patty and Jim Burke love that their 2,400-square-foot Monte Vista condo enables them to stay close to their grown children and their church but get rid of a lot of the chores of home ownership.
"We wanted to get away from cutting the grass, snow removal, all that stuff," Patty Burke says.
For Dowlin, it's a matter of hanging onto people and businesses that might move to fast-growing Butler and Warren counties. Hamilton County's population slide is accelerating, with a loss of 20,925 people between 1990 and 2000 and, according to new U.S. Census numbers, an additional 11,582 drop between 2000 and 2002. The losses are mainly coming in Cincinnati and other cities, with the townships holding steady or gaining population.
With big parts of eastern Hamilton County along Interstate 71 already developed, the west is the county's best bet for growth, Dowlin says.
Early indications are that the commercial development will be a success. Kohl's was bustling with shoppers on a spring weekday afternoon.
"I've been impressed with it, and I love the convenience of it," says Kathleen Mazza, who lives with her husband and three school-age children nearby in Bridgetown.
Mazza says she wants to support west-side shopping despite opposition to development by some residents.
"I think if you look at any suburbs any more, that seems to be the trend," she says. "I try to embrace what I can about it."
County Commissioner Todd Portune worries that the new stores and restaurants will compete with rather than complement nearby Western Hills Plaza and other retail along Glenway Avenue.
"You have new development that's directly in competition with some of the retail that already exists but is struggling," he says. "There's got to be some public policy behind this."
The Sierra Club also questions the wisdom of spending tax dollars to pay for sewers and roads so developers can tear up a new area instead of using that money to refurbish existing infrastructure.
"What we want (the Metropolitan Sewer District) to do is fix the problems they've got, not subsidize new development that's creating sprawl," says Marilyn Wall, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Ohio chapter. "It's a very skewed and backward set of priorities."
The county and the township recently decided to build a $4 million connector road between Rybolt and Harrison to alleviate traffic congestion where those two roads meet I-74. The awkward intersection wasn't a big deal when traffic was light, but now it can take four minutes to get through one traffic light at rush hour. And that's before the majority of the residential and commercial development has been completed.
The new route will enable the Rybolt-to-Harrison traffic to avoid the interstate intersection. .
On the other hand, the township is benefiting from development, too, township Administrator Kevin Celarek says.
Green makes about $3.5 million a year, he estimates, off of residential and commercial projects funded through a complicated arrangement called tax-increment financing. That money buys parkland - 44 acres in 2002 - fire equipment and police cars, he said.
Township Trustee Steve Grote has staked out what there is of a middle ground between developers and their opponents.
"I'm not against developing land just because it's scenic," he says. "I personally believe that people do have to shop and they want it to be as convenient as possible."
"I know how the system works, and it sucks sometimes," he says.
He doesn't need to tell Schilling that. The resident worries that the replacement of forest with parking lots and roofs - impervious surfaces that don't absorb rainwater - will lead to flooding along Taylor Creek.
He and his wife, Carol, shake their heads remembering how the area looked two years ago.
"'Green Township' - you think of it as being green," Carol Schilling says. "They're going to have to change the name."
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