October 13, 2022
By Rachel Scofield
Rockford Homes plans to build a 239-home subdivision on about 137 acres on Toll Gate Road just northeast of the Toll Gate schools.
On September 7, the Violet Township Trustees voted unanimously voted to accept a consent decree which will enable Rockford to move forward on, “Sycamore Grove”.
The trustees had previously rejected the subdivision at their January 6, 2021 meeting.
Rockford takes Violet to Court
On April 29, 2021, Rockford filed a complaint with the Fairfield County Court of Common Pleas asserting that Violet Township deprived Rockford of its property interest and the township treated Rockford differently than other developers which made similar requests.
“Rockford Homes is entitled to a declaration that rezoning the Property to Planned Residential District and approving of the Development Plan is constitutional, reasonable, and substantially related to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare,” the court filing stated.
Rather than continue a legal battle, Violet Township agreed to rezone the property and accept Rockford’s previously denied development plan.
Trustee Lori Sanders said that the decision to change the zoning was “very simple” because regardless of whether the township would win or lose in court, Rockford would still have the right to build houses on the property.
“The question fundamentally is ‘do we want R-2 zoning?’,” Sanders said.
R-2 Versus PD Zoning
During the 1970s and 1980s local officials designated most of the land in Violet Township as “Single Family Residential Districts” (R-2). For properties zoned as R-2, the minimum lot size is 30,000 square feet and no more than one home may be built on a lot.
Each home in an R-2 development must contain a minimum of 1,550 square feet of living area on the first floor and must meet the required minimum setbacks (50 feet for front and rear and 15 feet for each side property line).
There is no control over exterior finish materials and no open space is required.
Map A illustrates how “Sycamore Grove” may have looked as an R-2 development – 140 houses on one-acre lots arranged on a grid.
In recent years, “Planned Residential Developments” (PD) have gained popularity. Neighborhoods zoned as PD allow for greater flexibility in terms of lot size and usable open space. Homes are placed closer together for higher population density and larger neighborhood parks. A tree-lined buffer separates the PD community from neighboring properties.
In a PD neighborhood, municipalities like Violet have a say in the quality of the building materials and how the houses will appear from the street, including predominant front porches and no garages facing toward the front of the home, Riley said.
To build a PD community, developers must complete a series of requirements that are not mandated for R-2 neighborhoods. Per the Fairfield County Development Guide:
- A developer must prove that effort will be made to preserve the property’s natural features.
- A developer must devise a means to protect the property’s streams and wetlands.
- Owners of nearby properties must be informed of the planned development.
- Developers are required to hold public hearings that allow community members to voice their concerns.
These procedures are laid out in Section 3V of the Violet Township Zoning Code. Developers must also satisfy PD development standards. If a development standard is not met, a divergence must be requested along with a justification for the requested divergence.
Rockford requested a divergence regarding the maximum net density of two living units per acre to allow for a net density of 1.99.
The code also requires that properties “should generally conform to contiguous properties” which in this case are all zoned R-2, therefore Rockford required divergences to allow for smaller lots.
Township officials say that different zoning districts are not any ‘better’ than any others but planned development districts are currently very common because of the flexibility and control that both the township and the property owner/applicant get through that process.
With a PD, the property owner or applicant must follow the zoning hearing process and present the township with a proposed subdivision map.
The added flexibility means that, for a residential neighborhood, the plan often holds a higher density of homes, but in exchange, there is more open space, a street configuration that is not just a grid and the ability to preserve unique natural features of the land.
If the Rockford property was developed under R-2 zoning, it would have approximately 140 homes, but there probably would not be the large open space areas, a meandering street layout (which reduces the appeal as a shortcut), or the substantial buffering and mounding along Toll Gate Road. Additionally, Rockford or another property owner could have pursued a completely different and unknown plan for the property.
Rockford’s Legal Case
In its complaint, Rockford said that it did everything it was supposed to do during the “long, excruciating and expensive zoning process”. Including stipulations not required by law such as reducing the total number of houses by 125, improving township roads and maintaining nearly 70 acres (more than half the site) as an open space “for the use and enjoyment of all Violet Township citizens”.
The court complaint stated that the Violet Township Zoning Commission recommended that the trustees allow Rockford to build the neighborhood, but a “vocal minority of residents” along with Trustees Melissa Wilde (who has since been replaced by Lori Sanders) and Terry Dunlap “were adamantly opposed to any development”.
The residents hoped that if the trustees rejected the rezoning request that the property would remain rural.
“Violet Township has deprived and continues to deprive Rockford Homes of its vested rights under the United States and Ohio Constitutions to use its property for a planned residential development free from arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable zoning restrictions.”
Rockford’s lawyers questioned why the trustees granted other landowners “relief from Violet Township’s outdated zoning restrictions” but not Rockford.
Heron’s Crossing located off Refugee Road west of the Toll Gate schools is an example of a PD neighborhood. The houses are relatively close together with most properties backing up to parks or natural areas. Architects designed the community to incorporate existing trees and meadows.
Map B is the plan for “Sycamore Grove” as a PD – 239 houses on small lots arranged around natural features.
The “vocal minority of residents” that Rockford mentioned in the lawsuit, includes the political action committee, “Violet Residents for Responsible Development” (VR4RD) as well as unaffiliated community members. VR4RD, which has nearly 600 followers on social media is dedicated to “responsible” development and preserving the rural look and feel of Violet Township.
When the trustees voted against rezoning the Toll Gate property in 2021, many Violet Township residents believed that the fight had been won. A year and a half later, the trustees reversed the decision.
“We thought this was a done deal,” said resident Drew Potter. “They went to court, now ‘Surprise!’ We roll over and now more developers will come make threats.”
Resident Dan Baird suggested that the community take action.
“I am told that Violet Township always settles,” Baird said. “We the people should sue Violet Township – justice for all!”
Bob Neilon, questioned why the township even bothered to hold public hearings.
“We feel our voices are not represented. Speak for us!” he told the trustees. “Deny the development!”
In the court filing, Rockford alleged that VR4RD “would prefer to keep the property in its current rural state”.
Herb agrees that “most of the neighbors across the road on Toll Gate would prefer to see the cornfield remain. Obviously, it will impact the neighbors close-by the most. This is why zoning laws require a public notification of a set radius around the subject property. Having said this, some of us understand the far-reaching impact of such mass developments to the community as a whole. This is exactly why I am involved and concerned.”
Jackie Neilon believes that the larger lot sizes of the original zoning conformed more to the existing character along Toll Gate Road.
“Rural Violet Township is disappearing at an alarming rate,” she said. “The seller does not fit in with the surrounding area and safety is not ideal.”
“With those buyers, not-only comes increased traffic, a need for utilities, but also often children,” he said. “Children require schools. Schools are very expensive. And as we have seen in recent years, the Pickerington Schools are begging for more tax money. Two ballot issues were voted down (November 2020 and May 2021) and now there is one slated for our November 8 ballot.”
Effect on the School System
“Nothing impacts property values more than the community’s public schools,” Herb said. “Look around at central Ohio’s best communities, and you will see the finest schools; New Albany, Upper Arlington, Grandview Heights, Grandville…With the increasing number of homes in Violet Township … our Pickerington schools are struggling.”
Former Pickerington Local School District (PLSD) Treasurer Ryan Jenkins said that when forecasting future enrollment, the district estimates one student per new home. Sycamore Grove would add around 239 new students across grades preschool through 12.
Several schools in the district are nearing capacity. Toll Gate Elementary already exceeds the maximum number of students that it can safely serve by 80 students. PLSD did redistrict the Gateway Program from Toll Gate Middle to Harmon Middle, but in 2023 Toll Gate Middle will still exceed its capacity.
If voters approve the district’s bond issue in November, it will be several years before the students can move into the new classrooms. PLSD will redistrict in the meantime. Jenkins said that priority will be given to the students from existing developments to continue attending their same schools. The students from new developments, even if they live in closer proximity to a school building, will be bussed to a school with more availability. District Considers How to Alleviate Crowding
The VR4RD fears what impact an influx of people would have on other local infrastructure.
“Increasing the number of people living along Toll Gate Road by 400-percent will have a profound effect on traffic and safety for all residents,” said Jackie Neilon.
Sycamore Grove will have two exits onto Toll Gate Road and a traffic light and turn lanes will be added where Toll Gate Road intersects State Route 204.
In terms of emergency services, Violet Fire Department Chief Mike Little said that it is difficult to figure out the impact of a new development.
“Of course, our runs will increase, but until the subdivision is fully built, there is no way to put a number on how much is coming from it alone,” Little said. “As with any housing addition to the township, we will see run volume increase. The simple fact is more people, more runs.”
The department is currently evaluating how soon it will need more personnel and equipment. Considering the increasing rate at which Violet must request aid from other districts, Little estimates that his department may need to place an issue on the ballot in the next five years.
New Community Authority & Property Tax
The agreement also establishes a New Community Authority (NCA) to oversee the development. Like a Homeowners Association (HOA), an NCA has a board, but HOAs and NCAs have different responsibilities.
According to Riley, a NCA’s purpose depends on the terms of the petition that established it, which is filed with the county commissioners. Also, levies may be charged to properties within an NCA to fund infrastructure for the community like roadways and water/sewer facilities.
As part of the agreement between Rockford and the township, all the properties in “Sycamore Grove” will be taxed at 4.5 mills levied against their assessed value.
It is the first arrangement of its kind for the township. The monies collect will initially break out as 4.0 mills going to Rockford up to a reimbursement cap of $1 million, and 0.5 mills going to the township for general maintenance of the development.
After the cap is reached for Rockford, the township will receive an additional 1.5 mills, for a total of 2 mills.
The VR4RD wants to know where the other 2.5 mills will go.
Additionally, the group questions why Rockford will use these monies for road improvements, particularly as its contribution to the improvement of the Toll Gate Road/SR204 intersection.
Rockford had already made a commitment to provide a contribution for this intersection.