Zoo, others developing last land between Dayton, Cincinnati

Debates over commercial aspirations, practical realities ahead.

The Cincinnati Zoo added hives for 250,000 honeybees last week to its Warren County development, one of the cornerstones of the county’s plan for 26 square miles that is a big chunk of remaining undeveloped land between Cincinnati and Dayton.

The zoo also plans to begin construction this year on a $1.5 million cheetah breeding center and to continue to develop its farm and wetlands on 620 acres in the Gateway West Plan approved last week by the commissioners.

The zoo’s development is only one part that Warren County officials are counting on to draw people and business to the area.

The plan calls for a new Interstate 75 interchange at Greentree Road.

It also includes a five-lane commercial corridor along Union Road just east of the interstate from Butler County to Atrium Medical Center.

A 1,400-acre community featuring as many as 4,500 homes, a sports complex, cultural arts center, college campus and other amenities is being developed around the existing Otterbein retirement community.

Commercial development funded by special taxing districts is also planned in several areas, including around the Miami Valley Gaming racino.

“That’s our commercial engine, that’s our driver,” said Turtlecreek Twp. Trustee Jonathan Sams, a leading advocate for the plan, as well as the zoo’s commercial development of the former farm.

Zoo plans in Warren County

There are no plans for a tourist attraction like the Wilds wildlife park, east of Columbus, because of concerns it would hurt the downtown zoo.

“I just don’t think currently with the senior leadership at the zoo we see a facility out there like the Wilds,” Mark Fisher, the zoo’s vice president of facilities and sustainability said, after the area plan was approved. “We don’t want do anything at our Bowyer farm that distracts, diminishes or takes away from our zoo.”

Sams said he was part of continuing negotiations with the zoo about the land’s commercial potential, possibly including a botanical garden.

While discouraging expectations of more commercial uses of the land, Fisher said the zoo was hoping to draw people and educate them on wildlife conservation and other environmental concepts in areas of the farm other than those set aside for the cheetah breeding facilities.

Still, Fisher said the zoo planned to begin construction this year with plans of opening a large, isolated facility for the zoo’s breeding program next summer.

“You give them a lot of room — and the right environment — and things happen,” Fisher said, adding that public viewings would initially only be by special arrangement.

At the same time, he left open the possibility of other uses of the remaining land.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “There’s so much space. The potential is almost limitless.”

The zoo already has staff and volunteers working at a 25-acre wetlands off Mason-Montgomery Road.

The bee hives added last week are part of development of the area’s organic farming component. Honey will be made and sold.

Organic crops are already being raised for distribution through the Green Bean Delivery Service and as feed for zoo animals. The zoo is also raising and selling native plants there. Next year, it plans to begin making maple syrup.

The county plans to build a trail linking the township and city of Lebanon to the zoo property.

An educational center and hiking trail are also strong possibilities, Fisher said, while downplaying anything much more commercial.

“Let’s let this thing grow slowly and organically, literally and figuratively. Who knows what the future holds,” he said. “I would never say never.”

Beyond the zoo lands

The zoo is only one piece of the puzzle expected to take shape over the next decade or so on the 26 square miles, east of I-75, generally in Turtlecreek Twp. Trustees are also negotiating with Otterbein over tax incentives to help offset the cost of investment in the first phase of Union Village across from the existing retirement community.

With the plan in hand, the county, along with Monroe and Middletown and other supporters, can continue widening and rerouting Union Road, while moving toward approval of the new interchange at Greentree Road.

Ultimately, the Union Road corridor is expected to connect with Butler-Warren Road, south of Ohio 63 and lead to the Liberty Center development off I-75 in Butler County.

A roundabout is under construction at Union and Greentree roads, east of the proposed interchange, which would provide direct access off the interstate to Miami University in Oxford, downtown Lebanon and all points in between.

More than 1,200 new residential lots in the plan area are already in various stage of development.

Last week, the commissioners amended the plan to satisfy home builders that cul-de-sacs and housing affordable for middle-class buyers would be accepted in other subdivisions in the area.

Sams said approval of the the plan was important to ensuring the area is developed to minimize pressure on residents and local governments, rather than to maximize profits for developers.

“It’s not affordable to Turtlecreek Twp., not economically or socially,” he said.

Tom Grossmann, a former Mason mayor now on the county commission, predicted “raucous debates” are still to come before the plan becomes reality.

“When they find out, when we really have a real project, that’s when the stuff hits the proverbial fan. That will be the true test,” Grossmann said.

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