Warren County commissioners split over how to manage housing growth

Warren County commissioners disagreed last week about whether too many residential developments are being approved in the county and whether they should hold back some water and sewer service approvals to temper such growth.

A request from South Lebanon to extend sewer service to 64 acres it recently annexed for a 177-home housing development initiated the debate. The land is known as the Irwin property because of its connection to that family and its nursery business

Commissioner Dave Young appealed to the other two commissioners to join him in blocking higher-density residential developments by denying water or sewer service in some cases.

“I am truly worried about the future of a lot of rural areas in this county,” Young said. “This is a major philosophical change.”

Young voted against the request. He noted concerns such as the addition of students to the school district that might not be served with enough extra property tax for its budget and a need for a mix of residential and commercial development.

RELATED: 2-1 vote for annexation of 220 acres by South Lebanon

Commissioners Shannon Jones and Tom Grossmann, who voted for the sewer service, said property rights needed to be respected and noted that service was in place to serve the land.

County commissioners have influence in residential developments, such as the one before the board last Tuesday, in which a municipality has approved the development but lacks utility services needed for it to take shape.

“We’ll address each one of those projects on their merit,” Grossmann said.

A week before, the commissioners unanimously agreed to serve the former Peters Cartridge Factory redevelopment in South Lebanon.

RELATED: Annexation paves way for another subsidy for Peters Cartridge redevelopment

James Smith, South Lebanon’s long-time mayor, pointed out the county would be paid about $1 million tap fees in addition to rates set to cover the cost of the service if it were approved for the proposed development on the Irwin land.

Smith called it a “win-win for everybody.”

MORE: Warren County approves tax abatement for 178-acre development

He also said new homes in South Lebanon were selling for as much as $330,000 and that home sales were among the highest in the tri-state area.

“People want to move to the area,” he said.

Grossmann asked Assistant County Sanitary Engineer Chris Wojnicz if the rates and fees would cover the service cost.

“We don’t lose money. Our goal is to break even,” Wojnich responded.

MORE: Warren County moves to provide sewers to 2,000 rural acres

A representative of the developer, Rhein Interests, encouraged the commissioners to review a letter in their meeting packet from the Irwin family’s lawyer. The family supports extending utility services for development.

MORE: Big developments at risk as Warren Butler counties fight over sewers

Young said he joined Jones and Grossmann in supporting the private property rights of families like the Irwins. However, he said the land had been zoned for industrial development before the annexation in hopes of encouraging balanced growth of residential, commercial and industrial uses in the area.

Without commercial development, Young said the homes built need to generate enough property tax to educate the children coming from them or taxpayers would be seeing school levies on their ballots.

While schools and townships benefit from property tax, municipalities like South Lebanon benefit more from income tax, Young said, while depending on the county for utility services.

MORE: 1,400-acre planned community under construction in Warren County

The resulting land use is “not in the best interest of this entire community,” said Young, the senior member of the board.

Jones said the commissioners shouldn’t affect whether area communities pursue residential developments by controlling the water and sewer service.

“Should government use its authority to provide water and sewer service to keep private property owners from selling their property? No that’s not government’s role,” she said.

MORE: Mason, Lebanon vie for sewer service

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