At a Jan. 28 public forum in Pickerington to discuss a joint economic development district (JEDD) with neighboring communities, the fate of a hypothetical 80-year-old woman and her farm stirred a heated debate.
The JEDD proposal would be an agreement between Pickerington, Canal Winchester, Lancaster, Violet Township and Bloom Township to encourage economic development along U.S. Route 33 in land located within the two townships.
The various governments have been holding public meetings to discuss the agreement and to allow community members to voice their concerns.
The "80-year-old woman" analogy
Pickerington businessman Rocco Sabatino said that the agreement as currently worded takes away an individual’s rights. He created the "80-year-old woman" analogy to illustrate his point.
Suppose, he said, the elderly lady lives on a farm in the proposed JEDD area and a developer approaches her wanting to buy her property. The developer plans to build a retirement community because of the farm’s proximity to the proposed hospital on Diley Road.
According to the JEDD agreement, to change zoning, the lady would have to join the JEDD, however the JEDD does not allow residential properties to become members.
"It’s a catch-22," Sabatino said.
The agreement discourages residential use within the JEDD area, which could possibly encompass as many as 1,000 acres one mile north and one mile south of U.S. 33. The size of the JEDD is determined by which properties have successfully petitioned for inclusion. The JEDD will not officially exist until the first property owner joins.
"Somebody’s idea of economic development gives license to take people’s property rights away from them," Sabatino said. "Five entities will gang up to oppose one citizen. Residential development is not always bad. The property could be sold to build two-acre mini-farms, but you carte blanche ruled it out. It’s un-American. My opinion is that this will not stand. When you have to use force, you have no merit."
Response to the analogy
Attorney Al Schrader, who represents Violet Township in the agreement and has directed the five parties through the JEDD process, said, "nobody is forced to enter into the JEDD. In fact to join you have to sign a petition. If you don’t want in, don’t sign the petition. That’s not anti-American, that’s very American – majority rules. That’s the way it’s been since Thomas Jefferson. (You also have to) petition to get out."
Pickerington City Councilman Jeff Fix said Sabatino’s emotional example of "an 80-year-old lady overwhelmed by five government entities is misleading. We do not force anyone out. The little old lady and generations of her descendants can live there as long as they want."
The reason many municipalities including Pickerington have land use plans is to develop land for the benefit of the entire community not just one person.
Fix said, "It doesn’t make a lot of sense to build a bunch of homes in (an area zoned for) commercial and industrial."
Pickerington City Councilman Brian Sauer said, "The primary issue is what is the best avenue to get economic development to this area as to ease the tax burden because we are so residential heavy. (Council) does not want to lose focus on the idea to offset taxes and bring jobs."
A resident requesting not to be named, asked Schrader if the property owners in the proposed JEDD area had been provided an opportunity to express their views.
Schrader said that Violet Township Trustee Gary Weltlich had spoken with several property owners, but not all of them. Each municipality was to hold public hearings at which the property owners could speak.
The property owners will be approached once the agreement is finalized.
"(The owners) are busy running their businesses. (They do not have time to study an agreement) that has not been nailed down yet. They don’t like to buy a pig in the poke," Schrader said.
"Most citizens did not know about this hearing tonight," Sabatino said. "You can’t pass this based on this public hearing."
Fairfield County viewpoints
Tony Vogel, utility director for Fairfield County, warned the Pickerington City Council to be careful before entering into the agreement. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that property rights belong to the property owner. The JEDD could result in all five parties liable to lawsuits.
"This is a 100-year document," Vogel said. "You are entering into a contract for four generations of Pickerington residents."
Fairfield County Economic Development Director Bill Arnett said that the proposed JEDD would not fulfill its primary goals of encouraging economical development and creating jobs.
The way the agreement currently reads, the JEDD would be created, businesses would come, taxes would be assessed and infrastructure improvements would be made.
Arnett said if the JEDD wishes to attract developers, it must have a favorable infrastructure in place first. One of the municipalities would have to take on debt to build the infrastructure.
Arnett acknowledged that, while cooperation between the five parties would be looked upon favorably by businesses, many issues such as highway access would influence a developer more than the existence of the JEDD.
"If we need cooperation, there is already the Fairfield/Route 33 alliance," Arnett said.
The Route 33 Alliance
In addition to local governments, three chambers of commerce, including Pickerington’s, have come on board the Route 33 Corridor Alliance as well as 30 private businesses.
The alliance plans to distribute marketing literature featuring testimonials from business owners regarding how they have benefited from their proximity to U.S. 33.
Schrader dismissed Arnett’s comments by alleging he was a "minion" for a certain "vocal" county commissioner who sent him instead of coming to the meeting herself.
The county commissioner to whom Schrader referred, Judy Shupe, has expressed displeasure with the JEDD in the past for not involving the county in their meetings. The county provides utilities to the areas located in the proposed JEDD.
Weltlich, who has been instrumental in creating the JEDD, is running against Shupe in the March 4 primary election for her commissioner’s seat.
Pickerington Mayor Mitch O’Brien chastised Schrader, "(The commissioner) did not send a ‘minion.’ I don’t like that approach."
Pickerington City Councilman Michael Sabatino concurred with O’Brien that Schrader’s comment was inappropriate.
"It sends the message if you have criticism, it doesn’t matter," said Sabatino.
O’Brien said he asked Arnett and other county officials for advise on the JEDD because he was entering office with the agreement already underway and he had concerns regarding how it would affect the Route 33 Alliance. He said that the county officials asked why the parties proposed a JEDD rather than other options to encourage economic growth.
"We need to assess if we are using the right tool for the job," O’Brien said. "We don’t want to pound a nail with a wrench."
Schrader said that the JEDD does not need to invest in marketing at this time because of the efforts of the Route 33 Corridor Alliance. However, if down the road the alliance is not providing sufficient marketing, the JEDD board will market themselves.
Vogel said that another problem he saw with the proposal is that all the parties must agree if they wish to offer a developer any incentives. If, for example, Canal Winchester and the JEDD vie for the same business, Canal Winchester could deny permission for the JEDD to offer any tax incentives.
Businesses in the JEDD would pay a two percent income tax. Townships usually cannot collect income tax, but the JEDD enables them to do so. The cities, including Pickerington have little land remaining to develop, but the JEDD enables them to collect taxes from the townships properties.
Councilman Sabatino said that business leaders have told him that they do not see a benefit to the JEDD.
"It only adds cost, i.e. the two percent income tax," he said, adding that he was also concerned that Pickerington, by law, must share its one seat on the JEDD board with Lancaster and Canal Winchester. "A third of a vote is not any vote."