Marengo residents voice concern over use of Highland West building
By Randa Wagner
Will it be a school, gym, day care, senior center or sold to the highest bidder? The former Highland West Elementary School in Marengo is as unoccupied and undeveloped as it was when it was sold late last fall to Ross Porter dba Walnut Park LLC.
It was standing room only at Thursday night’s Marengo Village Council meeting as local residents attended to voice concerns over Tri-State Youth Academy’s interest in the property. The academy is currently using the Buckhorn property off SR 314 south of Chesterville, but their contract is up and Executive Director Rocky Hall is scouting for a new location. He gave a presentation to Highland school board members early last October before the Highland West building was sold.
Before Hall could address the council, Joe Porter spoke with council members on behalf of his son Ross, who could not attend that evening.
Ross was requesting a split of the property (large and the small building) so he can start construction on the small building. (There are currently two parcels in the property).
“My biggest concern in relation to splitting the property — before you decide what you’re going to do with it — is this property is zoned one way at the present time,” said Village Solicitor Robert Weston. “The biggest problem in a rezoning situation is creating ‘spot’ zoning, If you split this property now, it’s going to be very difficult to zone the two properties differently.”
Weston explained that’s two different kinds of zoning side by side in the middle of an area that’s residential.
“Perhaps you need to decide what’s happening with the entire property before you start splitting it,” Weston said.
“Without further research with the zoning Ross presented to you folks, it’s unsure what can be done there,” Porter maintained. “He’s looking at options with fitness facilities, which doesn’t fit in with P-1, however the small building we’re looking at for early childhood development fits under the P-1. We’re doing the split to do financing on the small building then move on to the big building.”
“You can’t expect council to say yes, we’ll change the zoning, when they don’t know what’s going in there,” Weston said. “It’s getting the cart ahead of the horse.”
“We’re just talking about a split for the small building and not changing any zoning at this point,” Porter replied. “So when you change that zoning, you’ll change it just on ‘that’ building and leave the other alone.”
“It makes it that much harder to rezone – that’s ‘spot zoning,’” Weston replied. “Maybe you ought to decide what’s going to be done with the whole property before you ask us to split it.”
“Well there’s some ideas in the letters we presented to you,” Porter countered.
“Not ‘some’ ideas,” Weston said. “If you buy a piece of property, it’s the idea you’re going to use for the property.”
“Ideas change from time to time when you buy a building,” said Porter. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to use it all for this.’ Other ideas come in. We thought the split would help with financing and we could move on with the construction (entryway and cosmetic work).”
Weston advised Porter to hire an attorney who understands the zoning and approaches it in a systematic way. “It’s not our job to make your idea fit to our zoning.”
Another point of contention was the unpaid sewer bill on the property. Mayor Robert Gale said Porter hasn’t paid anything toward the sewer bill.
“We’re asking for two things,” Joe Porter said. “A recalculation (on the sewer bill) and an abatement until we get the property up and running.”
“We don’t do it for anybody else,” Mayor Gale said. “I’ve got a vacant lot I’ve been paying on ever since they put it (the sewer line) in.”
Sewer rates in Marengo are calculated by units.
“When the system was designed, none of these small villages in the county had central water,” said council member Earl Bennett. “The EPA has a chart of equivalent dwelling units. One dwelling with one family was set at one unit. Other types of uses were set in other ways, such as the number of students in an elementary school, junior high or high school. The system was sized: the size of the equipment, lines and new plant was based upon the need to service so many EDUs. Restaurants might be eight units; an office might be five.”
If the purpose of the building changes, do the EDUs change?
No. “We financed for thirty years based on ‘x’ number of units to make that payment,” Weston said. “So it didn’t change. It wasn’t by choice, it was dictated by the EPA. We went by their chart. If we cut you from 22 units to 4 units, we don’t have enough money to pay our bill. That’s the way it was set up, and when you bought the building, you assumed that responsibility. If you don’t pay your bill. We’re short of money to pay our bill to the bank for the sewer system. If we cut your bill in half, we’re short 11 units x $33.50.”
“Until we repay the loan to the Ohio Water Development authority, we need that much money,” Bennett said. “If Mr. Porter wants a reduction (in his EDUs) my suggestion is he go to the Ohio Water Development authority and see if they will reduce our loan by that amount.”
Because a resolution could not be reached, the issue of the sewer rate and abatement of the billing was tabled for a future meeting.
“I don’t think we should do business with you til this (bill) is paid up,” Mayor Gale told Porter.
“Well, we were trying to get this worked out a couple of months ago,” Porter responded.
“But you’re not paying your sewer bill now,” Gale said. “Ross told us he wasn’t going to pay it – ever.”
“Well, you’ve got to work things out eventually.” Porter said.
Tri-State Youth Academy Executive Director Rocky Hall addressed council and the community about possibly relocating to the Highland West building. Tri-State Youth Academy is a licensed residential treatment program for boys ages 10–17. Revenue to support the for-profit comes from per diems paid by the counties the youths come from.
Hall explained the 32 boys that are residents at Tri-State are a step above foster care; youths from broken homes in a five-stage program that lasts from 6–18 months. Typical issues the youths experienced before coming into the program are anger management, sexual, physical and emotional abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of self esteem and good parenting, and petty crime.
Residents’ main concerns were over safety and security of their own children if they academy moves into town. Hall insisted the youths are not a threat or hazards, the facility is well staffed and the youths always monitored. He said he wouldn’t have his own wife, relatives and grandchildren working and living on the campus if the youths were dangerous.
“We are very staff secure,” Hall said. “Our staff to student ratio is 1:4 during waking hours.” He described the activities and community services the youth provided in the two programs he previously directed in Kentucky, claiming they ‘won the communities over.”
The issue of moving the group from a spacious 300-acre country setting to a confined area in town was a concern for residents. Hall said the academy plans activities and trips for the youths, and their lives are very structured attending classes, counseling session, doing chores and maintenance work. Hall assured residents they would never see a youth outside without supervision.
After an extensive question and answer session, Hall invited anyone who is interested to visit the facility and tour their current location on the Buckhorn property. Tri_State is also considering another town in their search for a new location.
After Hall’s presentation, most residents left the meeting hall and council proceeded with regular business.