Thursday, March 13, 2008

Schonhardt (Now) Supports the Big Darby Accord (kinda)

This Week Hilliard reports that Hilliard Mayor Don Schonhardt has decided to end his holdout on signing the Big Darby Accord, saying that he thinks it is wiser to wage his battles as a signator of the Accord than to get thrown out of the process, as he believes might happen.

But he has conditions: He wants it to be understood that he feels the Accord is merely a set of guidelines, not law, or even a binding contract. The mayor says he wants to "retain home rule" on City of Hilliard territory within the Big Darby Accord area.

The thing is, I'm not sure there is any City of Hilliard territory within the Big Darby Accord area. To my knowledge, all of the Big Darby Accord planning area lies on unincorporated land, not (yet) annexed into any municipality. The whole idea of the Accord is for the various municipalities and townships to come to a shared agreement of how all that land is to be developed and protected for the common benefit of all of central Ohio.

The mayor's concern is, I believe, over a relatively small but significant chunk of land defined by Alton-Darby Rd on the east, Roberts Rd on the south, and a line running north roughly from the corner of Roberts Rd and Walker Rd (the site of Brown Elementary and Bradley High). While this land is currently in Brown Township, it is included in the area the City of Hilliard may annex and receive water/sewer services from the City of Columbus, who controls (with an iron fist) the regional water/sewer system.

A central concept of the Big Darby Accord is that there is a better way to develop land than just packing in four or more houses per acre, and covering most of the remaining ground with streets and sidewalks. When you do this all that acreage -- which once absorbed rainwater to be taken up primarily by farm crops and evaporation -- is converted to hard surfaces such as rooftops and concrete, meaning rainwater has to be dealt with via man-made engineered solutions.

In central Ohio, the most common solution is to dump storm runoff into a holding pond designed so that most rainfall is retained in the development. However in a high rain event, like the one we had on Election Day last week, the retention ponds fill quickly, and the excess water is typically dumped into some nearby creek, which is already swollen from dealing with the natural runoff in its watershed. The best designed ponds, like the ones in Heritage Lakes (no, they are not just water hazards for golfers), release the water at a controlled rate. The water retention system at Bradley High School is supposed to be state-of-the-art in this regard.

One consequence of converting open land to hard surfaces can be downstream flooding, especially when a other floodplains have been compromised, as happened when Homewood Homes laid down thousands of cubic yards on their land on the corner of Alton-Darby and Roberts, which they have since left as a muddy mess of weeds. The Darby Creek Association reported that the permit granted to Homewood Homes to perform this landfill had been signed by Dan Nichter, who was the Director of Development for Franklin County, but is now a newly elected member of the Hilliard City Council.

By the way, at the time this happened, Brown Township Trustee Gary Dever was (and is) serving on the Franklin County Board of Zoning Appeals, the government body which should have heard objections from the public regarding any land use changes for this property Homewood Homes. One would think Mr. Dever could have been a important voice for our community in this matter, but as it turns out, Mr. Dever is also a farmer, and had for years been renting the Homewood land to grow cash crops. He was therefore advised by the ethics people that he had to excuse himself from any official discussion about this land because he had an economic interest in the outcome (and in fact at the time had corn planted on the property).

The thing I have never understood about the Mayor's interest in this land (he already has a development plan drawn up), is that it is to be almost entirely residential. Adding more homes is beneficial to neither the City of Hilliard or Hilliard City Schools. The economic viability of our community requires that tax-paying commercial development occur at the same, if not greater pace than commercial development.

The building of thousands of dwellings without corresponding commercial development is is what is wrong with our school funding right now!

So why doesn't the Mayor just ignore that land? It seems like it would be wise to let it remain in Brown Township and be managed under the Dig Darby Accord agreements. That would save the City of Hilliard the cost of constructing infrastructure to support a residential development, as wells as the ongoing expense to provide city services.

I suspect that it comes back to the fact that a good deal of the land in this area in question is already owned by developers, including Homewood Homes, Planned Development and others. For some reason, I believe, these developers must feel more comfortable having decisions regarding the zoning and servicing of their land being made by Mayor Schonhardt and Council members like Mr. Nichter. I'd love you hear your comments on why you think that might be.
The Norwich Township trustees have also voiced their adamant opposition to the Big Darby Accord. Note that Mike Cope just recently stepped down from Hilliard City Council after running successfully for Norwich Township Trustee. Why was it important for him to get on the Board of Trustees for Norwich Township before serving out his term on City Council? Was his vote needed to ensure that the Norwich Board of Trustees would not join the Big Darby Accord?

Chuck Buck, a long-time Norwich Trustee, says the Big Darby "tramples upon individual property rights... creating easements without just compensation." What he is referring to is a core concept in the Big Darby Accord - that some land will be restricted permanently from development, but those property owners would be compensated for lost value through a mechanism where other land within the Accord area would be assessed a fee in order to be developed at high densities, such as the so-called Town Center. Those fees would be distributed to the landowners whose land has been restricted from development, and the landower gets to keep the land. The theory is that the landowner could pocket the no-development compensation, sell the land for agricultural use, and get about the same amount of total money as if the land were sold to a developer.

The challenge is that no one knows what the land is worth until someone actually writes a check to buy it. As the many people who are trying to sell a house right now know, the amount the seller wants and the amount a buyer is willing to pay are often quite different. The final price is arrived at by negotiation culminating in the exchange of hard cash for a title. Until then it's all hypothetical.

This Accord compensation scheme is a little different. The landowner isn't being asked to sell their land exactly, only the development rights. They get to keep the land. So there are a couple of critical variables: a) what would a developer be willing to pay for the land; and, b) what would a farmer be willing to pay for the land? The difference is supposedly the compensation the landowner should expect to receive in exchange for giving up his development rights.

But how do those values get determined without an actual negotiation between a real live buyer and seller over a particular piece of ground? Absent that negotiation, landowners (of which Mr. Buck is one), are going to say things like "my land is worth $50,000/acre to a developer and $1,000/acre to a farmer, so the Accord must pay me $49,000/acre for my development rights. " Of course the first number will be overinflated and the latter lowballed. How do you settle these things when the truth is that every piece of land has unique value as either developable land (e.g. what kind of access does it have to sewer/water, which school system?), or as farmland (how much of the acreage is tillable, what has been the typical crop yield, how does it drain off rainwater?).

This is the reason the Big Darby Accord needs to be a binding contract between the ten parties and not just a 'recommendation' as Mayor Schonhardt wants. The land which can support high density development (and generate density fees) may not be in the same jurisdiction as the land that is designated for no development (and would be the recipient of density fees in exchange for development rights). There is no chance this thing will work if the landowners, who first and foremost have to be satisfied that they being fairly compensated for giving up their development rights, can't even be confident that their land is under the control of a contractural party to the Big Darby Accord. After all, if Hilliard gets to choose when it will and will not play by the rules, why should the buyers of land designated for high-density development feel they should have to pay any density fees?

By the way, one of the big hunks of land the Big Darby Accord declares a 'no-development' area is much of the 200 acre parcel at the corner of Alton-Darby and Roberts owned by Homewood, which is mentioned at the top of this article. I suspect this has a lot to do with why the Mayor wants to retain 'home rule' in regard to this area - that Homewood wants him and the Hilliard City Council to have the final say on zoning and development density. However, it worth noting that the Mayor's own plan shows a good deal of the Homewood property as green space as well. But of course the Mayor can change his plan if he wants.

It sounds like he wants the best of both worlds - access to the water/sewer services provided by Columbus, but no yielding of zoning authority to the Big Darby Accord process. We'll see how Columbus reacts to that. Or maybe the Hilliard City Council, with a couple of new members (other than Mr. Nichter), will take a different position than the Mayor.

So this is a blog about our schools - why am I going on (and on) about development politics and development economics (which are the same thing)?

Because while I may question the motivations of Mayor Schonhardt, one thing he says is correct: a signficant consequence of the Big Darby Accord is that thousands of acres of land - that would have otherwise been transfered to Columbus Public Schools under the former policy requiring annexation to Columbus to get water/sewer - will now remain in Hilliard City Schools, potentially increasing our school population by thousands of kids (although not likely the 10,000 kids the Mayor estimates). I just don't know that he's particularly concerned about the schools, or we wouldn't be in quite the funding mess we find ourselves in now.

The people of our community, and specifically the members of our School Board, need to take a position on the Big Darby Accord. They can no longer say things like 'we don't have any control over development, we have to take what comes.' They have a voice, and the power to educate and mobilize the community to make the municipal officials yield the the public's will.

And I think it was stupid to have not included a member of the Hilliard and Southwestern school boards on the Accord's 'Committee of Elected Officials.' After all the school districts are the largest political entities in the area (save the City of Columbus), and the organization that has the most skin (our skin!) in the game. This can still be fixed, but the School Boards have to demand it - it won't be given to them.

What do you think about all this?


  1. Interesting; studying Schonhardt is getting more like "Kremlinology" all the time. :-)

    I sure hope the school district ends its ostrich-like behavior since, as you say, it's a huge political entity. The cynical view is: more development = more jobs for teachers and administrators.

    I think you should pitch this post as a potential column in the Northwest News.

  2. Paul, this is an excellent essay, very informative. I didn't understand what the Darby Accord was all about, or grasp the political machinations at work in Hilliard. I agree you should try to get this published as an article or essay in the Northwest News, This Week or even The Dispatch.


  3. I still don't really understand the Big Darby Accord.

    Signing on to the Accord helps us reduce the density of housing or gives us a stornger voice against it?

    Simply put.... I want NO housing or large acerage housing West of Alton Darby. Therefore, am I FOR or AGAINST the Darby Accord. I know what the original intent of the Accord, but now with so many signing on, what does that really mean? Are we at risk of absorbing more students from "Columbus" if we sign on or do not sign on.

    I apologize for my dense-ness, but the Mayor confuses me.

  4. KJ:

    When you peel back all the conservation rhetoric associated with the Big Darby Accord, development density will be controlled by two things: a) how much water/sewer capacity Columbus is willing to install -- and where; and, b) what the developers perceive the market to be.

    When I was serving on the Brown Twp Comprehensive Plan group, we went to a presentation by a guy named Randall Arendt who advocates open space planning. We used many of these concepts in building the Brown Township Comprehensive Plan, and the Big Darby Accord follows a similar philosophy.

    Right now the Brown Twp zoning (which is actually controlled by Franklin County) allows for one house per 5 acres. Arendt thinks this is stupid because you end up filling up the countryside with one house every 500 feet or so.

    Instead he says the zoning needs to say things like: "average density of one house per acre, with 50% open space"

    What this means is on a 100 acre parcel, you can put 100 houses, but they have to clustered together in 50 acres, and leaving 50 acres as open space. Then everyone gets to enjoy the 50 acres of common ground instead of having to deal with an individual one acre yard.

    Clustering the houses also means less is spent on roads and utility lines.

    Unsurprisingly, Mayor Schonhardt has his own way of doing the math, which I detail in this earlier post. But my guess is that if developers want the typical 4 houses per acre, he'll try to make that happen - at least on the land just west of Alton-Darby.

    You would like no more development, and neither would I. But that's unrealistic. The best we can hope for is a development scheme that preserves the rural nature of Brown Twp.

    The Big Darby Accord does that, but the politicians are still doinking with it - trying to sort out some sticky things, particularly the density fee/compensation thing. The developers are a mighty influence.

    From the school perspective, the BDA lowers the housing density, and therefore reduces the number of potential kids for our schools.

    But via the BDA, Columbus is dropping its requirement that land must be annexed to get water. That means the parcels in the BDA zone will remain in the suburban schools rather than transfer to Columbus Public Schools.

    As you can tell, I've spent a LOT of time thinking about the BDA, and I still don't know if I'm fer it or agin it. It could go either way depending on what kinds of tweaks creep in as it gets implemented.

  5. Well, Sgt York (fer it or agin it)... Good to know I'm not alone in my inability to select a position.

    Thanks for trying to clear up an otherwise muddy situation.

  6. It sounds like a few people are going to get rich, while the people who pay the taxes in the Hilliard Area are going to get it in the wallet.