Friday, July 18th, 2008
By Shelley Grieshop
Public speaks out on East Jefferson building height issue
Mercer County commissioners have 20 days to make decision that could affect ethanol plant
  Mercer County commissioners have 20 days to decide whether a height restriction should stay in place for commercial and industrial areas in East Jefferson Township following a crowded public meeting Thursday.
The meeting at the Central Services Building in Celina was set to allow the public to voice opinion on whether to keep the current zoning code prohibiting industrial buildings from exceeding a height of 45 feet or to amend the code to allow an unlimited height.
The crowd of nearly 100 appeared evenly split on the issue, judging by the cheers that followed residents' comments for and against the proposed amendment. However, of the 18 residents who publicly voiced their opinion, 14 were against changing the existing code.
Prior to the meeting, commissioners received 12 letters endorsing unlimited structure height and three letters against it.
The commissioners have said they proposed removing the height limitation to attract more industry to the area so the county can be more competitive in the commercial and industrial market. The area also is the site for Mercer Energy's proposed ethanol plant, which would have structures exceeding 45 feet.
Many residents in East Jefferson Township, located on the north side of Grand Lake near state Route 703, are concerned that excess pollution and towering structures would decrease their property values. Also objecting to the proposed zoning change are lake-area real estate agents and homeowner's associations.
Brice Blair, a former zoning inspector for the county, suggested an even more restrictive zoning district in the area to lessen the environmental impact on the progressive residential development, which he believes would clash with industrial development.
"You have to understand, and I don't think you do, that we have a very unique and tender neighborhood in this area," he said. "We have homes, businesses, educational facilities and recreational facilities that are directly related to the natural resources of our lake. The owners of these are also very high taxpayers."
Blair, like several others who spoke out at the meeting, insinuated the commissioners' proposal is designed to pave the way for construction of the $125 million ethanol plant by Mercer Energy. Although the company received a height variance earlier this year to proceed with construction, that action was appealed and remains pending in court. If the commissioners vote to remove the height restriction, the lawsuit against Mercer Energy would be moot.
"This action is what I consider small town, backdoor politics, and it stinks," Blair told commissioners.
Jim VanTilburg, chairman of Mercer Energy, passed out flyers prior to the meeting promoting industry in the county. Later he spoke to the crowd.
"If we as a community wish to attract new growth, some changes are needed," he said. "Although (the commissioner's) resolution encompasses the 4-mile long industrial corridor and we are but one small part, a few individuals have made the resolution solely about us. It is true we will benefit, but the county will as a whole."
Jill Myers, who resides in the township, reminded the commissioners of the Mercer County Zoning Commission's vote to not recommend changing the zoning to an unrestricted height allowance. She said changing the zoning code will take the power to make such a critical decision out of the hands of local officials and residents and "have far reaching affects."
Grand Lake St. Marys State Park Manager Craig Morton also spoke out against the zoning change, saying it wasn't in the best interest of the state park or the local tourism industry.
Karen James of Koenig Road, St. Marys, who lives less than a mile from the proposed ethanol plant on Four Turkey Road, said she's worried about the effect industry will have on the lake.
"There are so many negatives and only a few jobs. What are we talking about here, 40 or 50?" she said, directing her question at VanTilburg. "This will help a few people who want to become very rich, very fast."
Joe Beiler, 7468 Celina-Mendon Road, who works part-time at VanTilburg's farm, said he formerly handled economic development issues for the Ohio State University Extension Office in the county and knows how important jobs are to the area.
"Roadblocks are something we don't need for development," he said, adding that most of the county has no height restrictions for industry.
Commissioner John Bruns - the only one of the three commissioners to express his opinion on Thursday - said job creation and retention must be a priority.
"Ever since I became a township trustee in 1986 and now since I am a county commissioner, the main concern I hear about is we need economic development to have jobs for our youth that go off to college then do not come back home because of no jobs available here in their fields. I am for job creation through economic development," he said.
Bruns said no surrounding cities currently have height restrictions of 45 feet in their industrial districts.
"If we are to compete with other counties for new business opportunities, we must not handcuff ourselves," he added.
Commission Chairman Jerry Laffin, who led the meeting, told the crowd he and the other two commissioners wish to speak with county Prosecutor Andy Hinders before making their decision.
If the commissioners adopt the amendment it will become effective in 30 days unless a referendum is requested by property owners who meet the requirements of the Ohio Revised Code.
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