Friday, August 24, 2012

Supplemental Material for August 27, 2012 School Board Meeting

Here is the supplemental material for the upcoming School Board meeting.

The items about the Win-Win Agreement have to do with the errors Columbus City Schools made in calculating how much the suburban schools school owed Columbus Schools under the revenue sharing agreement (I prefer to call it "ransom"). From here on out, the Education Services Center of Central Ohio will be the billing and collections agent for Columbus City Schools. I guess the folks at Columbus City Schools are looking for ways to reduce their exposure to more bad press.

I've not read through the documents in detail yet, but will of course do so before the School Board meeting. Please leave a comment or send an email if there's anything you want to bring to my attention or discuss.

Friday, August 17, 2012


It's been a while since I've written anything in depth about residential development in our community, mostly because there hasn't been much of that for a while. But we're starting to see the developers test the waters, and I'm encouraged that it may mean that the economy - the local economy at least - may be starting to recover.

One real estate trend that's emerging is the interest young families have in nice apartments in great school districts. It makes sense. Even with mortgage interest rates at an all-time low, there's more the potential buyer of a new home has to think about: Have home prices have pretty much bottomed out; is your income secure enough to take on the mortgage payments; do you feel confident that the local school district is in good shape, and will stay that way at least until you decide to sell your house?

If you can't check off all those requirements, it can make a lot of sense to rent a nice apartment for a while. We've seen two such apartment developments in the last year, both by Schottenstein: Hilliard Grand, near the intersection of Hayden Run Rd and Wilcox Rd, and Hilliard Summit, at the corner of Roberts Rd and Alton-Darby Rd. The target market for these apartments includes young families, and they make sure to point out in their advertising that these apartments are in the Hilliard City school district.

Planned Development, the outfit which developed Heritage Lakes, has been working on a project to develop another 400 acres they own on the west side of Alton Darby Rd, just south of Davis Rd. This is significant not only because it is the first sizable single-home development in our community proposed in quite a while, it is also the first one in our school district that is within the boundaries of the Big Darby Accord.

First a little history...

The City of Columbus and the Regional Water/Sewer System

When the construction of a regional water/sewer system was being contemplated many decades ago, it was decided that the City of Columbus would be given exclusive control of the system. This power was subsequently used by every Columbus mayor starting with Jim Rhodes to significantly influence the pattern of development in Central Ohio.

A key component of their strategy was to execute water/sewer services contracts with the suburbs that gave the suburbs the ability to expand, yet preserve 'annexation corridors' between the suburbs which would allow the City of Columbus to continue to grow.

And the City of Columbus made it their policy that they would not extend water/sewer services to any parcel of land which had not been annexed into the City of Columbus or into a suburb, and then only into areas within the suburb's water/sewer expansion areas, as defined in the contract.

School Districts and their Boundaries

School district boundaries are set by the State Board of Education, and for many years it was the policy of the State BoE to move school district boundaries with municipal annexations. As the City of Columbus grew, so did the Columbus City School District. The names can create some confusion, but a school district is a wholly separate political entity from a city, and they don't necessarily share the same borders. But for many years, it was a common practice to keep them aligned.

Then came the 1977 decision by the Federal court in Penick vs. Columbus Board of Education, which declared Columbus schools to be illegally segregated, and ordered the implementation of a busing program to correct it. It turned out to be a disaster.

Rather than leading to better racial integration in Columbus Schools, this decision started a stampede to the suburban school districts - the so-called "White Flight."  Hilliard was one of the destinations. The demand for suburban homes exploded, as did the population of our school district. Meanwhile, the result of the busing order was to make Columbus City Schools less integrated and poorer.

Remember the water contracts?  In many cases, the parcels of land in suburban school districts which were most ready to be developed at the beginning of this migration were those right at the edge of the then-current Columbus City limits, where the water/sewer infrastructure ended. But they were often outside the suburban city's water/sewer service territory. So to keep with Columbus' policy of no-water-without-annexation, these parcels were annexed into the City of Columbus, but remained in the suburban school district. Win for the developers, and win for the homebuyers.

The members of the Columbus School Board were understandably alarmed at this phenomenon. So they petitioned the State School Board to realign the school district boundary with the city boundary, and made some pretty good arguments as to why the State Board should grant their petition, including the fact that Columbus school buildings were emptying out (e.g. Central High School, now COSI) while the taxpayers were being simultaneously burdened with building new suburban schools.

The effect was to immediately dry up the demand for new houses in the suburbs. Those wanting to escape the busing program in Columbus Schools were understandably fearful that they could spend a lot of money on a new house in a suburban school district, and then get shifted back into Columbus Schools anyway.

The developers were outraged with this interference with their booming market. They have great political power in central Ohio - always have. Something had to be worked out, and after a few years of arguing and negotiating, the so-called Win-Win Agreement was finally signed between Columbus City Schools and many, but not all, of the central Ohio suburban school districts. Hilliard City Schools was one of them.

The Win-Win Agreement said, in a nutshell: a) existing homes in the City of Columbus, but a suburban school district would get to remain in the suburban school district; b) any undeveloped land in a suburban school district which is covered by the water/sewer agreement with the suburb would be allowed to stay in the suburban school district as well; but, c) any undeveloped land which is subsequently annexed into the City of Hilliard Columbus would automatically shift to Columbus City Schools.

There are a few developments in our area which fell under that last clause, notably the large parcel north of Hayden Run Rd, between Cosgray Rd and Avery Rd. That land is outside the water/sewer agreement with the City of Hilliard, and so was annexed into Columbus. Simultaneously it ceased being part of Hilliard City Schools, and became part of Columbus City Schools.

A Radical Change: The Big Darby Accord

Then around 2005, the City of Columbus had a dramatic change in policy. They said they were no longer interested in aggressively pushing out their boundaries, mostly because they said it was no longer economically viable for the City to extend police, fire, street maintenance, etc farther and farther out. In particular, they said they would be willing to extend water/sewer services into the townships of the western part of Franklin County, as long as development was done in a manner that preserved the unique ecosystem of the Big Darby watershed.

Whether the City of Columbus is really interested in conservation, or they have another political agenda, we don't know. But this policy drove the development of the Big Darby Accord.

The Big Darby Accord was intended to be a legally binding agreement between the ten jurisdictions which had responsibility for the western part of the county: Columbus, Hilliard, Grove City, Harrisburg, Brown Twp, Norwich Twp, Washington Twp, Pleasant Twp, Prairie Twp, and Franklin County. The agreement would specify not only land use restrictions and development requirements, but would set up a method for making the control of development density economically viable, using what are called Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs).

The idea is that if the overall density of development for the Big Darby Accord area is set to one dwelling for every five acres (which is the current rural residential zoning in Franklin County), and there are 50,000 acres in the Accord territory, then a total of 250,000 dwellings would be the limit. But some parcels of ground could support much higher density, and some much less - and there are some which should be left undeveloped forever.

It's not fair to tell a landowner that suddenly the rules have changed, and that their land can no longer be developed just because there is a wetlands on it, when in years past it has been okay to just fill in those wetlands and build like crazy. A great number of us live on land where exactly that happened.

So the idea of TDRs is that folks who have land which is ecologically acceptable for higher densities - like the 2-4 homes/acre we see in most developments - would have to buy 'development rights' from some other landowner, who in the process would be giving up their development rights. If 100 acres comes with the right to build 20 homes (5 acres/home), then to get the right to build 200 homes, the landowner would have to buy the development rights of another 100 acres. The buyer gets the right to build his 200 homes on 100 acres, but the seller can never develop his land thereafter.

However, the City of Hilliard never really bought into this concept. They said they were on board with the Big Darby Accord, but refused to yield 'home rule' of the land within their water/sewer service territory. I think the issue was that the developers who owned large parcels of land in the Hilliard water/sewer service area were distrustful of the whole TDR concept, and motivated the Mayor to fight against it.

Mayor Schonhardt has seemingly won that battle on behalf of the developers, and the Big Darby Accord never became a binding contract which would control development for the Big Darby Watershed. The Big Darby Accord Advisory Panel became just what its name implies - a body which can advise the City of Hilliard on development applications, but has no power to enforce its recommendations.

... and now Back to Today
This week, the Big Darby Accord Advisory Panel held a hearing on the first big application for development in the Hilliard part of the Big Darby Accord territory, the one called Heritage Preserve.

The application was prepared by John Talentino, the City Planner for the City of Hilliard, and was presented by him to the Advisory Panel. I take this to mean that the City has tacitly approved this plan. Next was a presentation by a representative of the developer.

The primary concern of the Advisory Panel was the development density. Every land use plan that covers that parcel of ground specifies a density of 1 dwelling unit per acre with 50% open space. This means a total of 418 dwellings could be built, but that they would have to be sited on 209 acres or less, leaving at least 209 acres as open space. This open space could be a golf course, a horse pasture, wetlands, woods, etc. The basic plan proposed by the developer is within these parameters, with 387 single family homes.

But there is a problem. The developer proposes 300 apartments be built on the site as well, for a total of 687 dwelling units, or a density of 1.68 dwelling units per acre - way above the density limits.


Simple - for aesthetic reasons, the City of Hilliard wants the developer to incorporate certain expensive features in the plan, such as an entry street bordering a wooded area along which no homes would be allowed, which will also serve to connect Davis Rd to Scioto-Darby Rd. They also want to realign Alton-Darby Rd so that it can serve as a southern entrance into the development. For these things to be economically feasible to the developer, they need to be able to sell more units, and since apartments are in demand these days, they likely already have someone in the wings ready to buy and operate the apartment buildings when the project is complete.

Advisory Panel Chairman Joe Martin, a respected long time member of our community, and a leader in the land use planning effort for Brown Township, wisely and appropriately cautioned his fellow panel members to recognize that this is not an isolated application, but rather one that will set a precedent for all future applications that will come before them.

As reported in the Dispatch, the Advisory Panel voted 9-0 to reject this application.

Now what?

The City of Hilliard may decide to simply ignore the vote of the advisory panel. The City might even decide that this is the last straw, and withdraw from the Big Darby Accord altogether.

Then the question will be what the City of Columbus will do. After all, they have the ultimate power via their control of the water/sewer system. If they come to the conclusion that there is no capacity to serve this development, that's it. Of course, the developer or the City of Hilliard could take Columbus to court and seek an order for Columbus to provide the water/sewer service. My understanding is that Columbus has typically prevailed in such lawsuits in the past.

I worry that this decision by the Accord Panel - and I absolutely support them in this case - puts the very existence of the Big Darby Accord in jeopardy. It likely depends on how much power the developers and the Hilliard elected officials feel they have relative to the Mayor Coleman and the Columbus City Council.

The City of Hilliard has the next move.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Supplemental Material for August 13, 2012 School Board Meeting

Here is the supplemental material for the upcoming School Board meeting. As always, I would appreciate your respectfully delivered feedback on any of these matters.

In particular, I'd like to know what you think about the proposed contract with the City of Hilliard, which provides for a Hilliard Police Officer to be stationed in each high school during the school day. For the 2012-2013 school year, this contract requires the School District to pay the City a total of $232,733, same as last year. For the following two school years, the contract amount would be based on whatever deal the police officers' union negotiates with the City of Hilliard.

There are several ways to look at this agreement:

  1. The City of Hilliard receives income tax revenue of $2 million dollars each year from the employees of Hilliard City Schools. The School District is the largest employer in the City of Hilliard, and the largest generator of income tax revenue. And of course, those income tax revenues to the City start with the property tax revenues collected from all the homeowners and businesses in the district. Why should we have to pay even more?
  2. On the other hand, since the mission of these officers is to protect and serve the people of the City of Hilliard, is it fair to ask the City to bear the full cost of posting officers in schools in which more than half the kids live outside the City of Hilliard?
  3. I asked a year ago whether these officers are even necessary. Our high schools are sizable buildings, and there's no way a single officer can observe what's going on at all times in every hallway and place to hide. Do they really make a difference, I asked? Each of the three high school building principals quickly replied that they very much appreciated having the officer in their building, not so much because they could patrol the hallways, but because they could very rapidly respond to situations, and keep things from getting out of control.
  4. In light of the several tragic shootings which have occurred in recent years, is a quarter-million dollars too much to spend if having a police officer on the campus can reduce the number of kids who might get hurt in such a situation?
What are your wishes?  Should I vote in favor of signing this contract?