By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer
One of southwest Ohio's most-visited farms says state transportation officials are threatening its family business by shutting down, for at least two months, a major state roadway during the busy summer tourist season.
For nearly 50 years Hidden Valley Fruit Farm, located about six miles north of Lebanon, has welcomed folks who pay for the experience of picking their own fruit and produce from the farm's 82 acres, take a hay ride or wander the farm's shops.
Hidden Valley drew some 80,000 visitors last year.
But beginning June 23, the main road leading to Hidden Valley - Ohio 48 - will be closed for at least two months under orders from the Ohio Department of Transportation. The project, just north of Hidden Valley, calls for straightening out a dangerous "S" curve, replacing an old bridge, and reinforcing roadside walls to prevent landslides.
The $1.9 million road project, which has already begun, is so extensive that transportation officials say keeping a lane open was impossible. A detour will force people to drive an extra five miles to reach homes and businesses immediately south of the road reconstruction site in Clearcreek Township near the village of Ridgeville.
Bob Ullrich, owner of Hidden Valley, and other business owners affected by road closing do not dispute the need for the improvements. But they say they the state should have done more to ask businesses and residents when they would have preferred to close the road.
According to a department memo, the only public meeting to directly gauge public opinion was held five years ago this week. It was sparsely attended, despite ads that ran in local newspapers two weeks prior to the meeting.
Highway officials say they have made phone calls to local businesses and sent certified letters announcing the road closure, but Ullrich says he hasn't heard from the department. He says a single meeting a half-decade before a road project begins is woefully inadequate.
"I don't think there has been any true effort on ODOT's part to do this right. It's really going to hurt us because they are talking about being closed during almost the whole summer tourist season," he said.
Ullrich sells produce and craft items from his family's giant, 150-year-old barn. In June, customers flock to the farm to pick their own cherries and strawberries for $1.50 per quart.
There are vegetables and blueberries in summer, an Apple Days celebration in September, and pumpkins and the Ohio Cider Festival in early October.
Hans Jindal, a district planning environmental engineer for the department of transportation, said the lag time between the 1998 public meeting and the project's beginning in June of this year was within the normal planning and design timeframe for roadway work the scale of the Ohio 48 project. He said the public meeting was the first part of a lengthy process.
Vernon Elbrecht Jr., owner of Vern's Transmission just south of Hidden Valley on Ohio 48, said the road closure "will probably cripple us."
He said he has never received any invitation from state officials to offer his opinions about the road work, nor has he received any announcement of the upcoming closing.
Department spokeswoman Brenda Brads contends that the state department attempted to contact all area businesses and residents before the 1998 public meeting and since, via phone calls and letters.
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