April 11, 2023
By Rachel Scofield
On April 4, the Pickerington City Council approved, at its own request, to rezone the former Wetherell Dairy property as a planned development. The council passed the ordinance as an emergency which meant that the rezoning became effective immediately.
The Ohio Revised Code requires that an administrator read the name of a proposed ordinance at three different meetings before a council may vote upon it. If the council approves the ordinance, under normal circumstances, the law does not take effect until 30 days later.
During those 30 days, citizens who disagree with the decision have the right to gather signatures for a referendum to place the issue on the next ballot. The issue is placed on hold until decided by an election.
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However, as stated in the code, “each ordinance or resolution shall be read on three different days, provided the legislative authority may dispense with this rule by a vote of at least three-fourths of its members”.
Ed Killoran, who lives on Busey Road, questioned the timing of the council adding the emergency amendment at the final reading of the ordinance.
“What has changed since the March 21 council meeting when the zoning ordinance could have been passed on the second reading and suspended the third reading?” Killoran asked. “No action was taken. So, what looming disaster has arisen since March 21?
I maintain that the city council and the mayor have read Facebook postings that an organization was being developed to gather signatures to place the use of this property, owned by the people of Pickerington on the November ballot. Tonight, the ordinance is being declared an emergency for one reason – the fear that the people who own the land may disagree with the few who have decided for them to vote for a better use for their property. By passing the ordinance as an emergency it by law becomes effective immediately eliminating the usual waiting period and eliminating any chance of the people who own the property to say, ‘We have a better idea.’”
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Reasons for the Emergency
Per the Pickerington City Charter, to deem an issue as an emergency, the council must determine that ordinance is “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety, or welfare of the citizens.”
In the case of the former Wetherell property, the amendment states that the ordinance met emergency criteria for the following reasons:
First, the proposed development will include commercial properties which will add employment opportunities and additional income tax revenues. The plan also includes open green space that will benefit the city at large.
The rezoning would reduce the number of single-family homes that can be built on the property from 400 to 150 thus reducing potential strain on the Pickerington Schools.
Additionally, the city entered into a purchase agreement to sell the property to a developer (Braun Holding, LLC). That agreement required that the city rezone the property to a planned development district. If a referendum resulted in citizens voting against the rezoning, the city would lose a $4,000,000 investment.
Lastly, if citizens voted against the rezoning, Pickerington would be liable for violating its contract with Braun.
Community Response to Legal/Investment Concerns
“It’s funny you say that this is suddenly a public emergency,” said Laura Coholich, who lives on Reynoldsburg Baltimore Road (just off Allen). “You bought this property in 2018. Braun hasn’t been knocking on your door, they haven’t been threatening you with legal fees and you have a way out of this contract per the contract and you guys say there is an emergency because you are afraid of the legal fees? Step up!”
Community Response to Pickerington Schools Concerns
Coholich also questioned the city’s assertion that the development agreement would lessen a future burden on Pickerington Schools.
“What I deem an emergency is the amount of development that has been happening in this city,” Coholich said. “What I deem an emergency is the fact that my kid’s classroom has 28, 29, 30 kids in it. That my friend who is a special education teacher in this town has 16 kids in her special education classroom.
So, my question to you is, if you guys build 150 houses on this property and let’s say the buyback rate is $8,000 per lot, you stand to make $1.2 million. There is a strain on our public schools that you guys are contributing to. Have you considered giving the money to our schools? What I’ve seen is that we as the taxpayer continue to foot the bill for unreasonable, out-of-control development.”
Vernadakis argued that the city is wrong with its assertion that the current zoning would allow for an even denser development.
“You said in the emergency addendum that there’s going to be 400 and something houses possibly built on these 210 acres,” Vernadakis said. “How many acres are actually buildable out of those 210? There is a false statement in the emergency request that there will be over 400 houses on that property.”
Wisniewski Explains Density Calculations
In a PowerPoint presentation that he created to address community members’ concerns, Councilman Brian Wisniewski addressed how the city calculated the density numbers.
“Two homes per acre does not mean half acre lots,” Wisniewski said.
A developer can build as many as two houses per acre based on the gross acres of the property which means that non-buildable areas such as the sizable Sycamore Creek 100-year flood plain are considered in that calculation.
Wisniewski illustrated this point with a flood plain map of Jefferson Woods, the neighborhood directly south of the former Wetherell property.
“Some of these houses are literally on the very edge of the flood plain,” Wisniewski said. “In several areas, their backyards are part of it.”
The property at 8185 Pickerington Road consists of 212 acres, which under existing zoning could equate to as many as 424 houses. However, under the city’s proposal, the developer may only build 151.
First, the design includes 62.5 acres of open space (more than the combined acreage of Sycamore and Victory parks) which includes six acres of existing ponds. That reduces the number of total possible houses by 125.
“What is critical about this is that every other planned unit development that the city has ever considered, has always taken the greenspace into account for determining density. 8185 is unique because we do not take greenspace into account. If we did, on that 75 acres we would be looking at 275 homes.”
Next, 54 acres along Busey Road would be developed into commercial space which reduces the number of total possible houses by an additional 108.
Lastly, the city intends to develop the remaining 20 acres into condominiums for residents aged 55 and older. Due to the age requirements, these properties will not add students to Pickerington Schools. The condos reduce the total number of possible houses by an additional 40.
By reducing the number of houses from the 424 possible to 151, Wisniewski calculates that the city reduced its possible income from the sale agreement from $6.6 million to $2.4 million. In addition, Pickerington could lose an estimated $150,000 per year in potential income tax.
“This was never about the money,” Wisniewski said.
Community Asserts Emergency About Taking Away Rights
Darren Meade, who lives just south of the former Wetherell property in Jefferson Woods, told the council that he serves as an attorney for other municipalities and is therefore well versed in what constitutes an emergency for legislators.
For example, legislation may be deemed an emergency because a contract has to be signed by an exact date or there could be a genuine public safety emergency because “a stop light needs to be put up on XYZ intersection.”
“There is no such emergency in this legislation,” Meade said. “This is basically to run this through and to try to run out the clock to avoid a referendum. I simply, respectfully request that you not find this as an emergency.”
George Vernadakis who lives on Busey Road, urged the council not to take the right to choose from the citizens of Pickerington.
“I think that’s unfair. Let the people vote,” Vernadakis said. “If you think this is the right thing, let the people believe it. If they trust you then they will vote for you but if not, you’re taking away their rights.”
The council chamber was crowded with community adamantly opposed to the rezoning. At one point, Meade asked for a show of hands from those who resided in the unincorporated portion of Violet Township and nearly all hands were raised.
However, two Pickerington residents also addressed the council. Both of whom asked the council not to take away their right to vote.
Kemper Sole Councilmember Against the Emergency
“It is a right of citizens to hold a referendum if they want to do that,” Councilman Kevin Kemper told his fellow legislators. “I believe that while we can do an emergency amendment, I am arguing that we should not. We should let residents have the right to vote.”
When the crowd erupted in applause, Kemper turned to address them.
“I’m not going to make you guys happy because I think it is a good plan and if it does get on a referendum then I am going to campaign against it,” Kemper said. “I think this is a plan that is in the best interests of the city, however I don’t believe the right to vote on it should necessarily be inhibited.”
Kemper did not serve on council when the pre-annexation agreement was approved in 2018.
“It is not something that I would have agreed with had it come up when I was on council but as councilmember (Brian) Wisniewski mentioned, we consulted with our lawyers and they have said that we are where we are,” Kemper said.
Despite Kemper’s plea, the council did approve the emergency language, The amended proposal was then unanimously passed.