Hello, Columbus?

Development in Knox County may be inevitable, but efforts are being made to control its scope

O n the surface at least, times haven't changed much in the past twenty-five years along Mount Vernon's Main Street, a slice of downtown Americana if ever there was one. Sure, Kresge's has been replaced by a Ben Franklin Five and Dime, and there is an antique shop in the storefront long occupied by J.C. Penney. Jody's is serving burgers where the Holiday Restaurant once dished out its tasty entrees. First-Knox National Bank tore down the old Ringwalt's building and erected a new one for itself in its place. First Federal Savings and Loan has a new name--Signal Bank--but still sits solidly at 136 South Main.

The newcomers (or newly named) take their place next to businesses that have been downtown fixtures for decades. Two Main Street mainstays, the Ohio Restaurant and the Alcove, are still serving hungry lunchtime customers. The Curtis Hotel anchors the same corner on Public Square as it has since 1876. Wise Jewelers and Williams Flower Shop remain in their familiar locations. The clerks at People's Shoe Store still know how to fit a customer.

This is a downtown where shoppers can buy a new refrigerator at Herald's Appliances and Electronics, purchase an umbrella at the Stage department store, browse the latest bestsellers at the Olde Fox Book Store, and take in a movie at the Colonial Cinema. There are few signs of the sort of downtown decay so prevalent across the country.

Venture out of downtown Mount Vernon, however, and it's easy to see how the seeds of change have been planted in the Knox County seat and its surrounding countryside.

Coshocton Road has become an "Everytown U.S.A." commercial strip, replete with fast-food restaurants, discount department stores, and shopping centers. Adding to the mix is developer Jerry Baker, whose plans call for about two hundred forty homes and condominiums, a hotel (completed earlier this year), several restaurants, a movie theater, a few big-box retailers, and offices--all on about three hundred acres of former farmland along Upper Gilchrist and Yauger roads.

A few miles east of the Coshocton Road strip, the Apple Valley residential and recreational community is growing by about one hundred twenty new homes a year. On Mount Vernon's south side, developers are mapping a 185-acre industrial park. Near Fredericktown, in northwest Knox County, a water war is shaping up as a Delaware County utility cooperative tries to tap into the groundwater supply near the Kokosing River. Countywide, new houses are rising at a rate of 400 to 450 units per year, with many of them popping up on large rural lots. Overall, according to a study released this past spring, Knox County has grown at a rate of approximately one thousand people annually in recent years.

As Bob Dylan would say, "The times, they are a-changin'."

N ow in his fourth year as Kenyon's president, Robert A. Oden Jr. continues to marvel at the College's splendid setting. It is rare when one of his public addresses doesn't include a vivid reference to some aspect of the campus's natural beauty, especially the oaks, maples, and beeches that tower over Middle Path. Oden is also quick to point out that Kenyon's physical appeal extends to the inspiring views one enjoys descending from the Bishop's Backbone along State Route 229 or looking south from the Peirce Hall terrace toward the verdant Kokosing valley.

"How many of us have shared the experience of climbing up the hill from the Kokosing valley, stopping at the College gates, and saying, `This, at long last, is what a college should look like,'" says Oden.

On a more pragmatic level, Kenyon's president recognizes the campus's rural beauty as a highly effective recruiting tool. He says the College's greatest successes in admitting and matriculating students occur when prospective students and their parents visit the campus. They see Kenyon as a charmed realm--a place where serious intellectual pursuits can transpire without distraction.

So it is with great concern that Oden and others at Kenyon view the wave of change washing over Knox County. "Balancing the commercial and residential growth of Knox County with the need to preserve agricultural and recreational open space is of great concern for the College," says Oden. "We need to be alert and take the initiative in preserving what we can of the surrounding countryside."

The College has taken such steps in recent years. The best example is protecting the farm fields and woodlands along and below the Bishop's Backbone. Kenyon now owns or has the right of first refusal to buy all the land between the top of the Bishop's Backbone on Route 229 and the Hill, notes Douglas L. Givens, the College's vice president for development. Much of the property is part of the Kenyon Center for Environment Study (KCES), a 380-acre jewel of farmland, forest, creeks, and wetlands along the Kokosing River.

The importance of such land acquisitions is reflected in the goals of "Claiming Our Place: The Campaign for Kenyon." As part of that $100-million fundraising effort, Kenyon is seeking $1 million to buy land surrounding the campus.

Oden and Givens say the College needs to be active in community efforts that will shape the course of development around Kenyon. They believe the College can provide "human capital" for the process, as it did with student and faculty collaborations such as the effort to have the Kokosing declared a scenic waterway by the State of Ohio, or the Family Farm Project, an acclaimed examination of farm life in Knox County, or the creation of the new Rural Life Center (see the story in "From the Hill" in this issue of the Bulletin). Kenyon administrators and faculty and staff members have also played important roles in drafting "Focus 2100," a comprehensive planning document designed to guide Knox County's growth well into the next century. In addition, the College was a cosponsor of a 1996 area planning study that addresses land-use issues facing Kenyon, Gambier, and the surrounding townships--College, Harrison, and Monroe. College officials have also been involved in Gambier's extensive revision of the village zoning code.

"It's incumbent on Kenyon to be aware of what is happening around us and to influence the process in whatever ways we can," says Givens. "We really are in the middle of a lot of things."

G ivens points out that one doesn't need to be a rocket scientist to see that metropolitan Columbus is spreading toward Knox County. Just make the forty-five-minute drive from Mount Vernon to Columbus's northwest suburbs, and the signs of urban sprawl are everywhere.

Neighboring Delaware County is a prime example. Once a bucolic farming community with many similarities to Knox County, it has been transformed into a Columbus bedroom community over the past two decades. Its population vaulted from 53,840 in 1980 to an estimated 83,245 in 1996, an increase of 54.6 percent. Projections by the Ohio Department of Development (ODOD) predict Delaware County's population will reach 118,550 by 2015.

Much of that growth is occurring in rural areas and villages. For example, the "Focus 2100" study says there are plans to add 2,538 housing units in the next five years in Sunbury, a village of about twenty-five hundred people that sits near the border between Knox and Delaware counties. Such a building boom would quadruple Sunbury's population.

The population of nearby Franklin County, anchored by Columbus, jumped from 869,132 in 1980 to 1,013,724 in 1996, a gain of 16.6 percent. Nearly all of the growth is in Columbus's suburbs along the Interstate 270 Outerbelt, as once-sleepy villages such as Dublin, Hilliard, and New Albany have become bustling small cities.

Migration to Columbus's suburbs has had little regard for county lines, according to the "Focus 2100" study. It notes that between 1989 and 1993, almost 34 percent more people moved from Franklin County to surrounding counties than moved into Franklin County from the adjoining counties. The study theorizes that this exodus is due in part to the growth of jobs in the Outerbelt suburbs.

"Focus 2100" says such employment projections are confirmed by new suburban development projects such as Easton and Polaris, which will add thousands of jobs in Columbus's northern suburbs. Easton, located near New Albany, and Polaris, which is in Westerville, are short commutes from southwest Knox County.

Knox County hasn't experienced the exponential growth of its neighbors, but the county's population has been steadily increasing. The most recent estimate, provided by the ODOD, lists it at 52,498, a gain of 5,025 people (or 10.5 percent) since the 1990 census. However, it is the future growth projections that concern many local residents. "Focus 2100" estimates the county's population will grow by 16,910 people between 1990 and 2020, an increase of 35.6 percent. That gain of nearly 17,000 people is roughly the present population of Mount Vernon.

"There clearly is pressure on us as a result of the growth of metropolitan Columbus coming this way," says Professor of Sociology Howard L. Sacks, director of the College's new Rural Life Center. "Without a systematic effort, growth will happen willy-nilly.

"The community has a heightened level of awareness that it's important to protect the rural heritage of the county--and a real sense that our rural heritage will be threatened in the next decade or two," he adds.

W hen it comes to growth, developer Jerry Baker seems to be leading the way in Mount Vernon. He believes Knox County is overdue for the mix of residential, commercial, and office development he is bringing to Mount Vernon's Upper Gilchrist and Yauger roads, just a few miles west of Gambier.

The project, which should take about ten years to complete, will include about two hundred forty homes, a 112-apartment complex, and a commercial strip along Upper Gilchrist Road, just south of the Coshocton Road intersection. A 72-room Holiday Inn Express opened there earlier this year, and Baker hopes to add several restaurants, a movie theater, and a few retailers. Office buildings have already been built on his property along Yauger Road.

Baker, who developed a similar project in Wooster, Ohio, says Knox County doesn't have enough retailers to meet the demand in the growing community. That means local dollars leave the county and are spent in Columbus, Mansfield, Newark, and elsewhere. "The community's not even retaining 50 percent of its disposable income," says Baker, noting that Sales and Marketing magazine placed Mount Vernon/Knox County in the top 100 of "under-retailed" communities in the country.

His project, however, has its critics, especially those who see it escalating the traffic jams along Coshocton Road. In addition, the development's location on the edge of the open space between Gambier and Mount Vernon creates long-range concerns for Kenyon officials and Gambier residents.

"Do I wish it weren't there? Yes," says Givens of Baker's project. "Do I wish it stops there? Yes." Givens believes the threat of green space between Gambier and Mount Vernon being gobbled up by development outweighs the benefit of having more shopping and restaurants for Kenyon students and employees. He says students don't enroll at the College because they want to be close to a Blockbuster video store or McDonald's restaurant; they come to Kenyon for the sort of intellectual experience best fostered in a rural setting.

Gambier Mayor Jennifer Farmer is also worried about Mount Vernon encroaching on her community's rural and collegiate lifestyle. "I've seen that you have absolutely no say over what Mount Vernon does in this county," she says. "Either they do it right or you're out of luck."

Some people in Mount Vernon are saying the city got it right with a compromise that was reached earlier this year on the new industrial park proposed by RJM Land Development.

The partnership, comprising members of two long-time area families, the Ramsers and Stullers, met with a firestorm of protest when it sought a zoning change from Mount Vernon City Council in mid-1997. Neighbors near the 185-acre tract worried the industrial park would hurt their property values, taint their groundwater, and ruin their quality of life. The RJM partners countered that the site, located next to the 322-acre Mount Vernon Industrial Park, is the only logical place to expand the city's manufacturing base. Such development, they claimed, is sorely needed to create jobs and boost the community's tax base.

After months of talks between RJM, the neighbors, city officials, and local business leaders, all sides agreed to the creation of a zoning classification that broadens restrictions on companies that will operate in the industrial park. The restrictions focus on issues such as lighting, noise, and aesthetics.

"It should be a good agreement for everyone," says Mount Vernon attorney Bruce Malek, who represented some of his friends who live near the site. Adds Mark Ramser, one of the RJM partners and a Gambier resident, "I think that, twenty years from now, the people who had objections to our plans will be pretty happy with what has transpired."

It's too early to tell if the same will ever be said about Del-Co Water Company's plans to develop a well field west of Fredericktown. The utility cooperative, based in Delaware County, would pump the water to its customers in several nearby villages in Morrow County. However, many in Knox County fear water from the well fields along the Kokosing River will eventually be transported to fast-growing Delaware County. "People are really up in arms about it," says Knox County Commissioner Robert Durbin.

About a year ago, the commissioners established the Knox County Water Supply District and made an offer to buy the well-field property from Del-Co. Negotiations are continuing, according to Durbin, but Knox County's goal is clear: Control the flow of water and, in turn, the development that will run with it.

T om Bigelow has a personal view of development every time he looks out the front window of his home in Mount Vernon. In the past few years, he and his wife, Nancy Johnson, have seen their idyllic view of rolling hills and fields transformed into one that now includes new homes that keep sprouting from the ground like so many oversize mushrooms. The subdivision sits just across the pond that fronts their nineteenth-century farmhouse.

"We don't have starlight and moonlight reflecting off the pond any more. Now we have security lights," says Bigelow, a College employee since 1991 who was named managing editor of the Kenyon Review this past summer.

It is the sort of thing that inspires one to become involved in helping chart the course of future development in the community. Bigelow did exactly that about two years ago when he volunteered to serve on the Land Use Task Force of the "Focus 2100" project.

He was one of several College employees involved in drafting the 128-page comprehensive plan, an effort sponsored by the Mount Vernon/Knox County Chamber of Commerce. More than one hundred people, drawn from business, education, farming, government, and other walks of life, created a plan designed to direct development in a way that will enhance life in Knox County instead of detracting from it.

Like some other Kenyon people involved in "Focus 2100," Bigelow recognizes the irony of the Chamber of Commerce sponsoring a plan designed to control development. All things considered, however, he believes "Focus 2100" is "a step in the right direction because it brought together groups of people for a new dialogue."

In agreement is Sacks, who also served on the Land Use Task Force. "I'm very satisfied with the plan that has come forth," he says. "I was skeptical at the start, but I was pleased with the group participation--it was fairly representative of the diversity of the community.

"But you can't expect to satisfy everyone with a plan of this magnitude," continues Sacks. "The trick will be whether it can be implemented in an effective and timely manner. There's a tension in any kind of plan like this. . . . It's a tension that pits community interest and collective responsibility against individual rights, especially as they apply to property. That's the fundamental challenge."

Sacks says the big test will be for county officials to convince township trustees and village councils to endorse "Focus 2100." When the final plan was published last spring, it established a laundry list of goals in the areas of land use, transportation, and quality of life. Then it spelled out in specific terms how the community can achieve those goals.

For example, one goal is to protect the county's natural resources and environmental assets. One of the steps toward getting there is defining the Kokosing and Mohican rivers as "green ways" that will be the centerpiece of an extensive county-wide, multipurpose, open-space system.

"Focus 2100" also addresses such key issues as protecting the county's farmland and rural character; reorganizing the Knox County Regional Planning Commission so it can better focus on community planning; preparing a model zoning code for townships and villages; limiting rural lot splits and subdivision activity in agricultural zones; focusing economic development toward agribusiness and specialty farming; and steering new commercial, residential, and industrial development to areas where such development already exists.

That principle of contiguous development is a good one but may not be realistic, says Jordan Professor of Environmental Science E. Raymond Heithaus '68, another "Focus 2100" Land Use Task Force member. For example, he believes development pressures will mount along U.S. Route 62 in southeastern Knox County, a transportation gateway to Columbus. That could spark housing and other projects that don't fit in with the "Focus 2100" goal of reserving that area for farming and open space.

As academic director of the KCES and a leader in efforts to protect the Kokosing River, Heithaus is pleased that "Focus 2100" recognizes the river as an important community resource that should be reserved as a prime area for green space. Still, he wonders if, over the long haul, the KCES will become one of the few places in which the county's rural heritage can be seen.

"We need to be thinking way ahead instead of assuming there will always be open space in Knox County," says Heithaus. "We seem to be slowly adjusting to the fact we're becoming more suburban."

T o avoid becoming "just another suburb," Gambier has been working on a new zoning code for the past eighteen months. "What we're attempting to do," says Mayor Jennifer Farmer, "is develop a zoning code that will give us some say as to how new development will fit in. . . . The new zoning code will be so much better than the old one in protecting the character of the village."

She says the existing regulations, adopted in 1968, do not give village officials enough latitude to judge how new projects will affect the rural character of Gambier. The new code, which still must be adopted by Village Council, has been crafted to reflect a consensus of community members who responded to a survey conducted by Gambier's Planning and Zoning Commission. That consensus is to:

* Protect open and green space in and around the village.
* Preserve Gambier's nature as a community of pedestrians.
* Preserve structures of distinctive architecture and historical significance.
* Preserve the physical attractiveness of the village and surrounding countryside.
* Address traffic and parking problems.

The commission has gone to great lengths to create a zoning code that will produce the above results, says Susan Spaid, a commission member and the College's Faculty Lectureships and Common Hour coordinator. Members have attended workshops on community planning, researched the zoning codes of other communities, and read extensively in the field of community planning, especially the books of Randall Arendt. A nationally known community planner, Arendt spent two days on campus in February, presenting a lecture and reviewing and editing the work of those developing the new zoning code. The document has also been evaluated by Robin Green, who has developed Hidden Creek at the Darby, an internationally recognized, environmentally sensitive community in West Jefferson, Ohio.

Spaid says commission members discovered that Gambier already has the characteristics that make a community special. That includes the green belt that surrounds the town; the post office that serves as a daily gathering place; the distinctive architecture, culture, and heritage of Kenyon and the surrounding community; and the nature of the village as an enclave of pedestrians.

"Through zoning regulations, we can protect our distinctive identity when developers come calling," says Spaid. "If you haven't done your homework as a community, then you don't have a legal leg to stand on. It goes back to the adage, `Failure to plan is a plan for failure.'"

Spaid and Farmer recognize that village officials can't ignore the development pressures beyond Gambier's corporate borders. Farmer says the new zoning code could serve as a model document for surrounding townships and help keep unwanted development from encroaching on Gambier. "We need to work with the townships to help them see the value of it," the mayor maintains.

Helping draft the new zoning regulations has been an enlightening experience for Spaid. "I've seen how much we have to feel happy about, to preserve, and to protect," she says, "and how important it is to decide how we want change to occur in the village. We can welcome growth because we will have a say in how that growth will occur. It will be on our terms."

A freelance journalist based in Newark, Ohio, Jeff Bell is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group.

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