Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Fairfield decision put off

City Council waits before voting on justice center referendum

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FAIRFIELD - City Council agreed late Monday to wait two more weeks before voting whether to put the justice center location on the fall ballot.

But there likely won't be enough votes to put it on the ballot. And most members showed annoyance Monday that three council members didn't want to resolve the matter now, saying the delay is feeding controversy.

"Thirty-five meetings we have discussed this issue," Mayor Erick Cook said. "After 35 meetings, I think we have heard everything we can hear."

But councilman Howard Dirksen, who is pushing for a public vote and isn't happy with the location choice, insisted that council wait to vote until the next meeting, June 23, when the third and final reading will be held.

"To me it's obvious that there is still division on this issue," he said.

Even if the city doesn't put the matter on the ballot, a resident referendum is likely.

Fairfield needs to move the justice center from its Ohio 4 location, where it is outdated and overcrowded.

But there has been controversy in recent months over where to move it. This spring, most City Council members abruptly decided to put the center on city-owned land at Pleasant Avenue and Wessel Drive.

That 8.5-acre parcel, which formerly held a Kroger and other stores, is across Wessel from the Fairfield Municipal Building and across Pleasant from Village Green, the city's new downtown.

The city plans to build a $10 million justice center on most of the site and develop the rest as retail/office space.

But the sudden decision upset some citizens and council members, who wanted council to follow through with a site selection process it previously agreed to. It included a market study of Fairfield's downtown and a Sept. 1 decision deadline.

Residents have been vocal for and against the issue at several recent council meetings and on Monday, four of them, including Village Green developer Joe Schwarz, addressed city leaders.

"It would be a waste of time and money if we bought another piece of property," resident Juanita Hehl said.

While the city can afford to spend $1.5 million on another parcel for the justice center, the purchase would affect projects in the capital improvement plan over the next five years, said Jim Hanson, the city's financial director.

"To squeeze another $1.5 million out ... we may have to defer some projects one, two, three years possibly, or issue more debt," Hanson said.

But some residents don't want police and courts so close to Village Green and would prefer commercial development.

"You need to really, seriously consider where you're going with this," resident Hall Thompson told council. "I don't want to drive down here and see a sea of police cruisers."

Schwarz, however, said the city would usher in the "demise of downtown" if it places the justice center elsewhere.

"The best thing that can happen to the downtown is for the justice center to go on the old Kroger site," he said.

"There's just not that much need for commercial development in our community," she added.

E-mail jedwards@enquirer .com.

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