Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Big Darby Accord and Hilliard

The September 19, 2007 issue of the Hilliard Northwest News published an article titled "Hilliard, Columbus grapple over water, sewer for sites" in which it is reported that the City of Hilliard continues to be a holdout on signing the Accord. Several reasons are given for Mayor Schonhardt's opposition to signing the Accord as is, and with some of them I agree.

A key factor of the Accord is a radical new position being taken by the City of Columbus in regard to water/sewer service. For decades, going back to when James Rhodes was the Mayor of Columbus, the big city has used its exclusive control over the regional water/sewer system to influence development policy county wide. Each suburb has a contract with Columbus which specifies the boundaries where the suburb can annex and be provided water/sewer service by Columbus, provided Columbus agrees it has the capacity to provide the water/sewer service or can construct new capacity at a reasonable cost.

In the case of Hilliard, the most significant parcel of unannexed land remaining in its water/sewer agreement is the several thousand acres bounded by Alton-Darby Rd, Roberts Rd, and a sawtoothed line running generally north from the site of Bradley High School. A good deal of this land is already owned by developers, such as Homewood Homes and Planned Development. Much of the rest is owned by individuals and families hope to soon sell to developers.

The land use plan for this acreage as defined in the Big Darby Accord is for Tier 1 conservation zones and conservation style development. What this means is that the creeks that drain the area would be preserved or restored to a natural state, and that homes would have to be constructed on 2-5 acre lots. This reflects the role this acreage plays in protecting the environment, and in particular the Big Darby River. Clearly this is an undesirable state of affairs for the developers accustomed to placing 4-5 homes per acre.

Alternatively, according to Accord policies, a developer can build to a density of one house per acre, as long as 50% open space is preserved. This means that on 100 acres, a total of 100 homes can be built, but those houses need to sit on only 50 of the acres, and the other 50 acres must be left as common open space. This is still an uncomfortable scenario for developers.

Mayor Schonhardt subsequently announced his own development scheme for this area - from the Conference Room of our school district's central office building no less - stating that he also supports the 50% open space requirement. However, the mayor's definition of 50% open space is that for each acre developed, a half-acre is reserved as open space. This means that on 100 acres, the Mayor's scheme would allow 66 houses rather than 50. The Mayor's definition also, I believe, allows unusable creek paths and flood plains to be counted as open space in his formula. Overall, the housing density for this area under the Mayor's plan would be at least 33% higher than that allowed by the Big Darby Accord. The language sounds the same, but means something different. The Mayor's language is more developer-friendly that the Big Darby Accord, which is I believe to be his primary motivation, but it is still an improvement over the 4-5 homes/acre density the developers typically use.

However, we must remember that this plan the Mayor has revealed is not cast in stone, and that if the developers request annexation to Hilliard (which incredibly forces the school district to request annexation of its land to Hilliard as well), the City of Hilliard can enact zoning policy which makes this land developable at whatever density it wants. After all, one of the demands the Mayor makes relative to the Big Darby Accord is that he wants to retain control of land use policy in Accord areas within the boundaries of the City of Hilliard - in other words this hunk of land west of Alton-Darby Rd. I don't understand how a municipality can be part of the Accord and retain control of land use within the Accord boundaries.

One consequence of Columbus' new water/sewer policy is that it neutralizes a key provision of the Win-Win Agreement, which governs how annexations and school boundaries relate. The Win-Win says that if undeveloped land is annexed into Columbus, the resulting houses would be assigned to Columbus Public Schools. This is a big negative if you are a home builder, which is the reason folks like Homewood and Dominion prefer to build houses in suburban school districts where they can demand higher prices.

Mayor Schonhardt rightly points out that if Columbus provides water/sewer without annexation, any resulting land stays in the suburban school district. This is a big win for the developers, but a big problem for the suburban schools like ours, who would like to see population growth slow down. I'm not sure why Columbus would suddenly make this radical policy change, but would have to observe that it's good the developers, and that seems to be the answer to a lot of questions.

After all, Hilliard is just one piece of the pie - there are many many square miles of land still ripe for development around central Ohio, and the developers are more interested in the upside from the new water-without-annexation policy than they are what happens in the few thousand acres annexable by Hilliard.

And now Columbus is asserting its power by refusing, until Hilliard signs onto the Big Darby Accord, to provide water/sewer service to the 125 acre site near the intersection of Alton-Darby and Scioto-Darby Rds that will be soon annexed into the City of Hilliard at the request of Skilken Development.

I am a supporter of the Big Darby Accord as a land use strategy. As part of the team that updated the Brown Township Comprehensive Plan, I learned about conservation style development, and how it can allow residential housing construction to take place while preserving an open and natural setting.

I also recognize that the ten political entities which make up the Accord group have objectives which are sometimes in the conflict, and that even the landowners are not in agreement. Some landowners want to sell out to developers and leave (indeed, many are absentee landowners now), while others, such as me, want to stay in the Hilliard community without having my current rural setting converted into high density housing and shopping centers.

So while I believe Mayor Schonhardt is fighting the Big Darby Accord primarily as an ally of the developers, I do agree with his position that the neutralizing of the Win-Win Agreement through the new water-without-annexation policy is a bad thing for our school district, and for all suburban school districts.

What happens if the City of Hilliard never signs the Big Darby Accord agreement? The obvious impact would be that Columbus could choose to never provide any additional water service for Hilliard expansion. The land west of Alton-Darby Rd would remain in Brown Township, and developers would have to live under the rules of the Big Darby Accord. Hilliard City Schools would get lots of new kids, but not as many as would be the case in typical residential development.

This would also mean that Bradley High School would remain in Brown Twp and the City of Hilliard would lose all the income taxes that would be paid by the faculty and staff if the land were annexed. Lest we forget, the school district is the largest employer in the City of Hilliard, and income taxes are the way the City gets funded. The placement of Bradley High School on the Emmelhainz property, versus land south of Roberts Rd, was significantly influenced by this fact, in my opinion.

Tough spot for Mayor Schonhardt and our school district. The City of Hilliard needs the income taxes generated by the Bradley High School staff and the folks who will work in the Skilken development, and therefore needs water/sewer service from Columbus. The school district needs the property taxes that would be paid by the Skilken development and other new businesses the Mayor and his team can recruit into the district. Meanwhile the City of Columbus has signaled that it doesn't care if Hilliard expands and develops - Columbus has its own agenda and is willing to use its control over water/sewer services to get what it wants.

What do I think is best?

For me personally, I'd like to see Hilliard sign on to the Accord and get on with seeing if we can make this progressive land use plan work for everyone.

For the school district, I think it doesn't make much difference what the City of Hilliard does. Through its control of the water/sewer system, Columbus will dictate development policy in the township land within the school district anyway. I'd much rather see this accomplished under the principles of the Big Darby Accord than have western Franklin County become another sea of houses with hordes of kids to house and educate.

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