MOUNT VERNON — Traffic, safety services, and schools were among the concerns residents noted at Monday night’s public hearing about a proposed multi-family development on the city’s far east side.

Rockford Construction has asked the city to rezone 38 acres fronting on Upper Gilchrist and Coshocton roads so that the company can build a 496-unit apartment complex, The Retreat at Mount Vernon.

The land is part of an 84-acre tract listed as Casey’s Way. It was annexed into the city in 2014 and previously known as the Beckett Annexation.

The 38 acres currently have mixed-use zoning: single-family residential, general business, and planned neighborhood development. Rockford is requesting R3, multi-family housing.

The Mount Vernon Municipal Planning Commission approved the rezoning at its March 10 meeting. It takes six votes for council to override the commission’s recommendation.

In its legislative session, council voted 5 to 1 to rezone the 38 acres. Councilman Mike Hillier cast the dissenting vote. Councilman Joshua Kirby was not present.

About eight residents attended the public hearing. Upper Gilchrist resident Marsha Kelso asked about the development’s effect on the school system.

“What are the schools going to do?” she asked. “How are they going to take on these kids the people are bringing in?”

Retreat at Mount Vernon campus

Jeff Gottke, president of the Area Development Foundation, said he talked with school officials about the development.

“They are currently under enrolled, so there’s room in the schools for growth,” he said. “The schools are starting a facility planning process that this can be a part of.”

Kelso noted the increased traffic on Upper Gilchrist and questioned landscaping barriers. Rockford CEO Robert Yoakam said that although the details are not yet worked out, Rockford typically does mounded pine trees and shrubs.

Neil McIlvoy, whose property abuts the northern edge of the 84-acre tract, asked about fire and EMS protection for the area.

Referencing the 2020 study that pinpointed the intersection of Coshocton Avenue and Vernonview Drive as the ideal location for an east-side fire station, Safety-service Director Richard Dzik said the city has “been trying to complete that independent of this project.”

“The city has already identified that area could benefit from a quicker response, and we are currently trying to work with some landowners in the area to find the land we need,” he said.

Regarding the timing of a second station, Dzik said, “If we can acquire land this year, the hope is we can do it in the next three to five years.”

McIlvoy responded that fire and EMS services should be available before additional people move into the area.

Upper Gilchrist Road resident Ron Sheets also was concerned about landscaping barriers and traffic.

“You can have all kinds of [traffic] studies you want, but it doesn’t get rid of the fact that we’ve got a knot there already,” he said, acknowledging that adjusting the signal will help a little bit. “If you add another 500 cars, plus what Schlabach is doing, we’ve got a real knot.”

City Engineer Brian Ball said the city did a peak-hour traffic recount two years ago on Coshocton. Last summer, the city tuned up the timing.

Ball said there is enough traffic to justify putting in a left-turn lane for southbound vehicles on Upper Gilchrist. That eliminates cars turning right (west) onto Coshocton or heading straight on Upper Gilchrist getting stuck behind vehicles turning left (east) on Coshocton.

Coshocton Road will be widened to two lanes for westbound vehicles approaching the intersection from Apple Valley. That gets cars through the intersection quicker, allowing more time for southbound traffic on Upper Gilchrist.

Regarding the 700 additional vehicles consultants estimate will go through the intersection at peak time, Ball said that since it is within city limits, the city can regulate timing vs. the Ohio Department of Transportation.

“We can set a little lower threshold so our customers can have a little better service without having to meet those ‘can’t reach the ceiling’ ODOT standards,” he said. “If we feel the intersection is congested, we can make those improvements before the [housing] units are substantially occupied.”

Referencing the proposed Intel development in nearby Licking County, Debra McIlvoy asked why the city is not putting more pressure on developing land in the southern part of the city.

“It seems like you are not directing the need to where it should be,” she told council.

ADF’s Gottke said it is inaccurate to say that developers are not encouraged to develop land south of the city.

“There’s only so much developable land in and around the city. Developers will go to the easiest area first rather than investing lots and lots of money into something that may not be built in the long run,” he said, adding that this parcel is one of two in the city that is close to ‘shovel ready.'”

Debra McIlvoy said there seems to be a “veil of secrecy” surrounding meetings relating to the development and rezoning.

“It frightens me how quickly everything developed from being a single-family home to being a two-story and three-story multi-family thing. Nobody knew about that that’s in the community in that area,” she said.

According to the clerk of council, the city placed public notices in the Mount Vernon News for the municipal planning commission and public hearing meetings. Meeting announcements are also on the city’s website.

Additionally, notices were mailed to 26 property owners on Coshocton and Upper Gilchrist roads within, contiguous to, and directly across the street from the parcel. Debra McIlvoy said she did not receive the letter.

Gottke and Ball both spoke in favor of rezoning.

Gottke said the development helps with the county’s need for 240-520 new housing units a year for the next 10 years. He acknowledged the traffic issues but said there is money to pay for road and intersection improvements.

Gottke said the pricing for the apartments, while slightly higher than the city’s average rent of $767, is in line with the amenities and new, quality construction. He also said that with an average household income of $46,000 for city residents, pricing is within the affordable range.

Speaking as a dairy farmer, Ball said a higher-density apartment complex means that fewer cornfields are converted to housing. As the city engineer, he said the revenue from supplying water and wastewater services to the complex keeps costs lower for all city residents.

The city will receive and estimated $250,000 a year in utility fees from the complex and $350,000 in income tax revenue.

Council’s response

In voting against the rezoning, Councilman Hillier said his biggest concern is traffic. His traffic concerns date back to 2014, when the city annexed the property. He said Rockford Construction has a 2023 start date, but the city has no start date for road improvements.

Councilmember Tammy Woods said that the need to free up single-family houses is one of the tentacles that the apartment complex might meet, but she agreed with Hillier about the traffic concerns.

“I realize the need for housing in this town, but there are going to be repercussions about the traffic,” she said, adding that she wanted updates about road improvements and water/wastewater from city administration over the next four years as the complex is built.

Noting “we are never going to get rid of the traffic problem, that’s the headache of growth,” Councilman John Francis said, “West end and east end neighborhoods are gone. You have developments now. That’s what accommodates the 21st century individuals who are going out into the world.”

Councilmember Amber Keener said that the analysis showing the need for 240-520 housing units in the county, even before knowing Intel’s potential impact, influenced her decision to support rezoning.

“It’s obvious that without having new development for 20 years, we need growth everywhere,” she said.

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