By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MORGAN TWP. - A proposed subdivision on a large tract of agricultural land has created quite a stir in this normally quiet southwestern corner of Butler County.
Some neighbors are worried that the subdivision - originally proposed as 80 homes on one-acre lots - will cause excessive water and sewage runoff and will generate too much traffic for the rural area's winding two-lane roads.
Six months ago, Aaron and Tricia Ireland bought a home near the proposed subdivision site, south of Layhigh Road and east of South Weaver Road in Morgan Township. They found the area's tranquil, country ambiance appealing.
Now they're worried that the proposed subdivision will ruin that.
"We probably wouldn't have bought the house if we had known about the subdivision," Aaron Ireland said.
Ron Gibbs, a member of Liberty Crossing LLC, a development company that bought the 222-acre farm near Layhigh Road at a May auction, says the residents have nothing to worry about.
"We're not here to put a blight on the community," he said. "I'm going to make the subdivision as nice as I possibly can. I will do whatever (county) officials tell me to do."
Yet a lot of residents remain fearful about what might be built on the property.
Normally, five to 20 people appear at the Morgan Township trustees' meetings. But on a rainy night in early June, this subdivision issue drew about 250 people to the township hall, which seats only 110.
"In terms of public interest, this is the biggest issue we've had in the last six years," Trustee Robert Copeland said.
This type of conflict will become more common in Butler as residential development reaches farther into agricultural parts of the fast-growing county, said Larry Frimerman, executive director of the Three Valley Conservation Trust, a nonprofit group that helps preserve farmland, open spaces and the quality of streams in Butler and Preble counties and parts of five other counties.
"This is the tip of the iceberg of what could come to be without proper management of the subdivisions and zoning rules," Frimerman said.
But Dan Hendricks, spokesman for Home Builders of Greater Cincinnati, said Frimerman is exaggerating the threat residential development poses to the preservation of farmland.
He said the biggest reason for the loss of farmland is not development, but the transformation of farmland into forests. Preserving farmland isn't as critical as it used to be because technological advances in farming have enabled farmers to be just as productive with less land, he said.
The density of Liberty Crossing's proposed subdivision worries residents more than anything else. Morgan Township, which has a population of 5,300, has water lines, but not public sewer lines. The homes in the new subdivision would need septic tanks.
But, after consulting with the Butler County Board of Health, the county planning department has told Liberty Crossing that one-acre lots are too small to handle the leach fields of the septic systems that would serve the homes.
The ground in that area doesn't absorb the effluent from septic systems very well because bedrock is 2 to 3 feet below ground level.
Liberty Crossing has withdrawn its preliminary subdivision plat and is reconfiguring it.
"As a developer, you want to get as many lots as you can," Gibbs said. "Eighty lots was the best-case scenario for us. But we'll adjust."
Some residents believe that the subdivision's lots should be at least five acres to prevent septic effluent from seeping into neighboring properties, which generally lie below the subdivision site.
"We're concerned that it's going to go into the farm ponds and streams," said Arlene Rahn, who, as chairwoman of the Concerned Citizens Group of Morgan Township, mobilized residents to oppose the original subdivision plan. "Cattle drink that water and then it gets into the food chain."
Most of the properties surrounding the subdivision site are five or six acres, said Rahn, who has lived on her seven-acre parcel with her husband, William, for 23 years. She said the county has required just about all residents in that area to build on lots of at least three to five acres.
"The developer should have to follow the same rules that we have to follow," she said. "We're not opposed to them building there as long as it's done right."
Copeland said he thinks that requiring five-acre lots would be unreasonable.
"I would prefer to see three acres," he said.
This issue has caused the township to consider raising its required minimum residential lot size on agricultural land from one acre to at least two acres.
After Liberty Crossing submits a new subdivision plat, the proposal will go through the county and township planning and zoning process. If approved, construction wouldn't begin until next year, Gibbs said.
The homes will be in the range of $130,000 to $190,000In the meantime, the neighbors of the subdivision site will continue to monitor the situation.
"This is a real nice area," Rahn said, "and we want it to stay that way."
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