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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2003

Commercial sprawl, congestion rile locals

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Peering out a rear window of his condominium on a warm summer morning in August, 2001, Roger Weiher could not believe what he was seeing.

A group of workers with chain saws was cutting down a forest that had shielded his Sylvania Township neighborhood from the bustling businesses along West Central Avenue.

By afternoon, 60 to 100 trees were gone, leaving a vast, open view to one of Lucas County's busiest and noisiest roads.

Mr. Weiher and seven other homeowners in the Carrietown West development sued the township - and several businesses established at the site - alleging that township officials and the property owner reneged on a 1989 agreement to keep the natural buffer intact.

The spat is a microcosm of a festering dispute that has pitted residents upset with what they contend is poorly restricted suburban sprawl against developers, retailers, and township officials over a 1 1/2 -mile section of Central, from the I-475/U.S. 23 interchange west to King Road.

“This whole area is like a powder keg. Some days you want to say ‘the hell with it,'” said Phyllis Steele, owner of Today's Lighting on Central.

Barely a decade ago, the stretch of Central west of the expressway consisted mostly of homes and fields, with long-established neighborhoods scattered north and south of Central. Beginning in the late 1980s, a boom in luxury home and condo developments, lured by space and the expressway, brought thousands of affluent residents to the area.

As certain as this morning's sunrise, retailers followed the consumers.

Today, Central is packed with big-box stores, service stations, fast-food restaurants, shopping strips, and office buildings. The road - a four-lane, U.S. highway - can't handle the resulting traffic, which is compounded by the presence of truck drivers, some of them using Central to avoid Ohio Turnpike tolls.

Not everyone is upset by the growth.

“Traffic aside, I feel all the development is great,” said Andy Golding, vice president at Keystone Auto Glass, which has been operating on Central for 20 years. “These [businesses] are necessities, and they're easy and close by.”

Development is not the issue, critics say. It's the way the growth has been designed that has ticked off some residents.

“We're not against development. All we're saying is follow the rules,” said Edward Nussel, president of the Glaston Oaks Condominium Association. He helped enact a zoning code that he and others say has largely been ignored by current township officials, who favor a development-at-any-cost attitude.

Township Administrator Brad Peebles concedes Central is a mess but adds that he views traffic and road design - rather than poorly planned development - as the problem. Efforts to ease congestion are under way, Mr. Peebles said.

But even someone as optimistic as Mr. Peebles, a former Fulton County commissioner, said such measures are a Band-Aid approach and that the focus should be on less developed areas west of King.

“We have already lost control of everything east [of King],” he said. “We're trying to get ahead of it and cut it off at the pass.”

The rapid growth was most keenly felt in the increased traffic along Central. In 2000, 28,000 vehicles a day traveled between King and I-475/U.S. 23, making it one of the county's busiest roads, according to Ohio Department of Transportation figures. Newer figures, likely showing significant increases, will soon be released.

Meanwhile, daily tractor-trailer traffic between McCord and I-475/U.S. 23 jumped 50 percent, to 3,120 vehicles, between 1997 and 2000. More traffic has meant more wrecks.

The three intersections along this stretch of Central - at Wilford, McCord, and King - have been among the six most accident-prone intersections in an eight-county area of northwestern Ohio in recent years, said ODOT spokesman Joe Rutherford.

Township Trustee Richard Moses said another problem is the lack of another nearby expressway exit, causing Sylvania city, Sylvania Township, and even Springfield Township residents to jam the Central exit.

Mr. Rutherford said work will begin next year on improving Central. An extra lane will be built both eastbound and westbound from I-475/U.S. 23 to Lowe's. Additional northbound and southbound turn lanes from Central onto McCord will be added, and a six-inch curb median will run from McCord to just east of Lowe's to prevent vehicles from turning off Central into retail parking lots. The temporary concrete barrier that now runs from the expressway to McCord will become permanent.

Mr. Peebles said a service road will be built on the south side of Central, running from Wilford to Central Park West, where a traffic signal will be installed.

“We want to reduce the number of curb cuts along Central and make the right-hand lane a through lane to the expressway,” he said.

Lucille Laskey remembers when the township was a rural community of 17,000 residents in 1970, when she was elected to the first of her seven four-year terms as a trustee.

Mrs. Laskey, now 85, is neither surprised that the township's population has reached 45,000 nor shocked at the growth along Central.

She recalled its beginning, when Kistler Ford moved its downtown dealership to Central in the late '60s. Other vehicle dealers followed, creating the now-famous Central Avenue Strip, which begins at Kistler next to Imperial Lanes at Reynolds Road and runs to I-475/U.S. 23.

Soon after, two of the area's first box stores were built at Central and Holland-Sylvania Road - a Kmart and a Woolco - as Central development continued its westward progression toward the I-475/U.S. 23 interchange, which opened in late 1968.

Deane Allen, who became a trustee in 1977, said she and Mrs. Laskey shared similar beliefs: “We were pro-development, but we wanted it done orderly.”

When Jan Stone moved to the neighborhood in 1980, Central between the expressway and King was still an undeveloped highway. “We were a nice bedroom community,” Ms. Stone said.

Along Central, between the expressway and McCord, there was a township fire station, a service station, two motels, and a handful of small businesses. The stretch between McCord and King was mostly residential. But things quickly changed.

In 1984, Mrs. Laskey announced that new construction projects totaling $4.3 million were scheduled, mostly for the area around Central. As the area developed, Mrs. Laskey and Mrs. Allen said the issue of adding service roads along Central to separate through and business traffic was raised.

“We wanted it badly, but it just would not work. You can't come in later and take the space from businesses already there,” Mrs. Laskey said.

Although residential growth had spurred the retail boom, some of the new homeowners were concerned. They feared Central might become another Airport Highway, a congested east-west state route four miles south of Central. Rather, they hoped Central might be closer to Dussel Drive in Arrowhead Park, Lucas County's most progressively developed commercial district.

Mr. Nussel recalled that about 100 homeowners met with retailers and township officials a decade ago to develop a revised zoning code for Central.

Those meetings produced the Central Avenue Overlay, a special zoning district for Central from McCord to the township line just west of Herr Road that became part of the township's 1974 zoning code. Among other things, the overlay restricted commercial development to a depth of 400 feet on either side of Central so that such development did not cut jig-sawlike into abutting residential neighborhoods, called for tree plantings and other buffers to shield residences, limited business driveways, and required landscaping to add esthetic appeal to all new developments.

“It took us about a year to do. [It's] a compromise document,” Mr. Nussel said.

In the view of Mr. Nussel and others who have battled the township on zoning issues, Central would be a better place today had succeeding officials followed the overlay plan.

Some residents connect the chaos on Central to a change in township leadership. Others, Mrs. Laskey among them, say new blood was a necessity to manage the growth.

In her first year in office, Mrs. Laskey said the township budget was $500,000. When she left office in 1997, it had climbed to nearly $14 million. Today, it's $20 million. The township had become big business.

“We could not afford to have people with no [business] experience,” Mrs. Laskey said.

Yet even Mrs. Laskey was unprepared for the upheaval that began in 1995. Over the next six years, nine different people served on the three-member township board. The trustees today include Mr. Moses, president of the Moses-Schlacter Group, a real estate development company; chairman James Schwerkoske, owner of JMS Real Estate Industries, and Dennis Boyle, an ODOT employee.

Mr. Peebles was hired as zoning inspector and economic development manager in 2001 and was named administrator last year.

While Central's traffic mess ticks off everyone, its rapid development has created scattered opposition, mostly by neighborhood groups who consider the expansion reckless, poorly planned, and often in violation of the overlay code.

The removal of the forest buffer behind the Carrietown West condos is a case in point, residents there say. In a $1 million suit filed last July, the residents alleged that after a new zoning request was approved by the township, neither the property's owner, Keystone, nor the township filed the agreed-upon landscaping easement with the county recorder. Mr. Weiher, one of the homeowners involved in the suit, said the trees were taken down to install a sewer line for a Tim Horton's donut shop. Keystone later allowed a pair of wireless phone towers to be erected at the site.

Mr. Weiher said the homeowners settled their suit last month after the township, Keystone, and three other companies agreed to pay an undisclosed sum for the planting of large Norway spruces to reinstate the buffer.

Of more concern, some residents believe, has been the way township officials have allowed developers and retailers to avoid adhering to the Central overlay plan - such as the recent construction of the 32-acre Lowe's and Giant Eagle complex on the north side of Central next to Meijer. Alan Timmerman, the lone dissenter in a 4-1 township zoning commission vote in 2000 that paved the way for the development, said he believed a pair of box stores produced too much retail intensity for the site's size.

The developer, The Benchmark Group of Amherst, N.Y., later persuaded the township's board of zoning appeals to approve a pair of variances for Lowe's: The store's sign was tripled in size and the building's height was allowed to be extended.

“Why have the code if you're going to keep adding variances?” Mr. Nussel asked.

Mr. Peebles said the 400-foot commercial depth restriction stipulated in the overlay code would have created a narrow band of retail strips that would not have provided enough services for the area's population base. “It's better to go deeper and maximize our frontage,” he said.

As for the critics, he added: “Anytime you have change, you have people who feel they have been violated. But the natural evolution of our commercial growth is Central. Our job is to figure out how best to facilitate that growth and buffer the residential properties. That's not easy to do.”

Other conflicts in the area have involved Mr. Schwerkoske, Mr. Moses, and trustee appointments to the zoning commission and board of zoning appeals. Notable is the dispute between Mr. Schwerkoske, township trustees board chairman, and residents of the Carrietown development, off McCord near St. James Shoppes.

On two occasions Mr. Schwerkoske has attempted to build an office building on a narrow sliver of land between the plaza and Carrietown. Each time, Carrietown residents have lobbied against the building, arguing that it would intrude on their neighborhood, hurt property values, add to congestion at Central and McCord, and open the way for more commercial development on McCord.

The township's zoning commission agreed and twice turned down the trustee's request for a rezoning of the property. After the second vote, last year, Mr. Schwerkoske cleared the heavily wooded lot. In October, he submitted a plan for construction of a pole barn and a two-story house on the property, said township zoning manager Mary Lou O'Mara.

“There's no way to say what was on his mind, but it seems like he's punishing us for messing up his project,” said Tom Zarse, a Carrietown Association trustee.

Not true, said Mr. Schwerkoske: “If that was the case, I would have taken [the trees] down the first time [they voted against it].”

Mr. Moses said he believes Mr. Schwerkoske is being unfairly criticized. “Being a trustee shouldn't change the way a person operates,” he said. “He has every right to [cut down trees on his property]. He owns it.”

Mr. Moses is himself a central figure in a lawsuit filed by former township zoning inspector Robert Sabo, who was fired in 2001.

Mr. Schwerkoske said he may submit his office plan again to a revamped zoning commission. “I think I would have a better chance if I weren't a trustee,” he said.

Some residents complain Mr. Schwerkoske may now have a much better chance with a zoning commission whose members he has helped appoint as a trustee.

In recent years, variances such as the ones given to Benchmark for the Lowe's project were more the rule than the exception by the zoning appeals board, which watered down the zoning code and opened the door to haphazard development and planning, critics say.

Allen Hotchkiss, a former zoning appeals board secretary, said he and former board chairman Clint McBee, a Toledo attorney, often voted against the variances but usually were out-voted.

“You don't have to be a genius to see [why],” he said. “The board was very, very real estate and developer oriented.”

Last year, the zoning appeals board included Thomas Schlachter, a partner in trustee Dick Moses' real estate development company and a Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority board member; Scott Stansley of The Stansley Group, a construction supply company; Karen Lauber, former president of the Toledo Board of Realtors, and alternate Richard Wandtke, who works in marketing for Louisville Title Co.

Mr. McBee, who resigned in December, declined comment. Mr. Hotchkiss, who also works in real estate but said he supported reasonable growth, resigned soon after. “When Clint got off, there was no way I would make a difference,” he said.

After a new township zoning code went into effect last year, the number of zoning appeals board cases dwindled, township records show. Bruce Wharram, the zoning commission chairman, agrees the new code is less strict. The old one, in effect since 1974, “was not developer friendly,” he said.

Mr. Peebles said he's focusing on keeping the stretch of Central between King and Centennial less congested. A master plan that includes service roads is before ODOT and the county; Mr. Peebles hopes to have it approved by fall. But he has to hurry.

A new car dealership has been approved for the southwest corner of Central at King, and a tractor supply company - in which Mr. Moses is a partner - is under construction nearby. A handful of homeowners in that stretch have for-sale signs posted; their properties have been rezoned commercial.

“I've told [the developers], ‘Here's what our plans are. You need to be aware of our intent,'” Mr. Peebles said. Meanwhile, he's asking developers to look beyond Central. “[We have] opportunities to have residential and commercial areas elsewhere in the township so people don't have to go to Central.”

But the skeptics believe the zoning code isn't strong enough, and that it will be up to individual company owners to do the right thing.

Mr. Nussel said he thinks the new code has doomed the efforts of activists fighting for reasonable, more aesthetically pleasing growth on Central.

“The Central Avenue Overlay is buried in the code. It has been neutralized,” he said. “We have won some battles, but we have lost the war.”



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