Local, county officials hope to manage growth; Monclova Township fears a repeat of Airport Highway development

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A1

Right now, they couldn’t seem more different.

Maumee-Western Road is a two-lane rural road flanked by trees and farmland with a few curves and hills to slow traffic.

Airport Highway, just three miles to the north, is a stop-and-go, traffic-packed mess. Its five lanes clog like a hair-packed drain pipe, especially at rush hour.

As development continues its westward push in Lucas County, rural Monclova Township is next. Some residents, planners, and local politicians worry that they will soon see farmland covered with endless asphalt parking lots.

“Development is coming, there’s no doubt about it,” said Joni Shugarman, a township resident.

The story of suburban sprawl can seem dull with all its talk of curb cuts and traffic patterns, access routing and impact studies.

But think about the last time you were stuck behind a half-mile line of cars at a red light. Or the last time you sat in traffic, hands white-knuckled on the wheel, anxious and hoping you could make a left turn before a semi coming the other way ran you down. Or the last time you missed a flight at Toledo Express Airport because of an accident on Airport Highway.

How often those suburban nightmares occur is a function, in large part, of how communities plan their growth.

Monclova residents have good reason to be concerned. Springfield Township, the county’s last boomtown, is just a few miles to the north. From 1970 to 1990, Springfield’s population soared 92 per cent, and retail complexes such as Spring Meadows sprouted up along Airport Highway.

The result was one of Ohio’s most congested and dangerous roads: Airport Highway, with seven traffic signals in a two-mile stretch, confusing lane changes, and a concrete median erected to prevent dangerous left turns.

Once planned as an express route to Toledo Express Airport, Airport Highway has become so clogged that some Toledoans find it just as fast to drive to Detroit Metropolitan-Wayne County Airport.

“Airport Highway was developed the way a lot of places were developed,” said Michael Prosser, an engineer who does work in Monclova. “In came a McDonald’s, then came another place, and then another, until it was a big mess. There wasn’t any planning. Monclova’s trying to do it differently.”

But some are fearful that, unless developers and officials get their act together, the results in Monclova could be the same as along Airport Highway.

Since 1990, the Lucas County plan commission has approved 19 new subdivisions in Monclova, currently in various stages of completion, with more than 2,500 single-family and 500 multifamily units.

Considering that Monclova Township had 4,547 residents in 1990, that sort of additional population would have a very real impact on traffic flow.

“We’ve got enough residential development here to choke a horse,” Ms. Shugarman said.

She and a group of other Monclova residents have been keeping close tabs on the pace of development. Last week, they held a rally on Maumee-Western Road to complain about the pace of development.

“This place is going to be crazy if all these things come in,” said Mary Isaacson, who was holding a sign stating: “We don’t want another Spring Meadows!”

Politicians are taking notice too.

“You only get one shot to do it right,” said Lucas County Commissioner Harry Barlos. “If we don’t do this right, then Airport Highway could end up looking like a good development.”

*

Suburban growth usually involves a standard set of players: a local government, developers, local residents.

But in the case of Monclova Township, there’s an unusual player involved: the city of Toledo.

Toledo isn’t in Monclova as a governing body; it’s there as a land speculator looking to recover from a bad real estate investment.

In 1987, Toledo joined the long list of dreamers who looked to Monclova’s open spaces as a way to make money. Toledo’s mayor at the time, Donna Owens, and then-City Manager Phil Hawkey, secretly agreed to purchase 1,187 acres in Monclova Township hoping to annex the land into the city, develop it for business and industry, and bring more taxes into city coffers.

In particular, city leaders hoped that Chrysler Corp. would agree to build a new Jeep plant there.

In all, Toledo spent more than $14 million buying land.

But the plan went bust when Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Charles Abood ruled that Toledo couldn’t annex the land because it didn’t touch the city’s borders.

Soon after, Toledo officials began discussions with the city of Maumee. Toledo would allow Maumee to annex the land, in exchange for forming a joint economic development zone. Under the terms of the deal, Toledo would receive a portion of the payroll taxes Maumee collected from businesses on the Toledo land.

The deal put Toledo in the awkward position of spending its economic development resources to help attract more businesses to the suburbs -including many of its own.

Since he took office in 1994, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner has sold off the city’s Monclova land in pieces large and small, from 14 acres for a new coating plant for Lima-based MetoKote Corp. to 435 acres for the site of a proposed regional mall and surrounding retail outlets.

Perhaps the biggest impact on the township will come from the proposed mall, planned for U.S. 24 west of I-475.

General Growth Properties, Inc., of Chicago, wants to build a mall about the size of Franklin Park Mall, which would be a major pull for traffic.

The mall site was annexed from Monclova into Maumee in 1994.

*

Toledo’s mayor is pushing hard to sell the city’s Monclova land holdings to raise money to pay for Toledo’s share of the costs for Jeep’s new Stickney Avenue plant in North Toledo.

Toledo’s aggressive attempts to unload the land have served to speed up a process that the township would just as soon see happen slowly, according to Gary Kuns, president of the Monclova Township trustees.

“One of the big problems we’ve got in this whole thing is that [Toledo development director] Barry Broome has just said, `We’ve got to sell this land, we need the money for Jeep,'” Mr. Kuns said.

“That’s an honest statement, but it’s also a reflection of how much pressure they have to sell and to hasten the development process. They’re going to sell to someone who wants to get something for their investment quickly.”

Toledo has sold almost all of its Monclova land, but the deal Mr. Kuns is referring to hasn’t been finalized yet. On Sept. 17, Mr. Finkbeiner announced that the city would be selling 212 acres to a local partnership called Eclat for $6.2 million.

Eclat wants to build the Eclat Commerce Center, a light industrial and office park, on the site. Those plans have put Eclat in the spotlight for local residents and officials who think the commerce center could be the start of uncontrolled development in the township.

“So far, we’ve been blessed with good developers, but now we may be caught up in the kind of negative development that we’ve seen elsewhere,” said Mr. Kuns. “Toledo is saying, `We need this money for Jeep; so we’re entitled to do whatever we want.'”

Mr. Kuns insisted that he isn’t passing judgment on the merits of Eclat’s plans but said that the area Eclat hopes to develop – between Maumee-Western and Monclova roads, just west of I-475 – “will be very difficult to develop without a serious impact on traffic issues.”

The long-term plans for the area include the eventual addition of an interchange at I-475 and Maumee-Western. If that is built, access to the Eclat site will be easy enough: drivers will be able to come off the interstate, take a quick left, and be on the property.

But Mike Ligibel, planning and programs administrator for the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Bowling Green office, said that a new interchange is at least 10 years off, and could cost upward of $30 million. ODOT hasn’t even begun any planning for an interchange, and Mr. Ligibel said it is still an open question whether it will ever be built.

That means that, for at least 10 years, traffic headed to Eclat will likely have to flow on two-lane roads such as Monclova Road, Briarfield Boulevard, and Strayer Road.

Combine that traffic flow with what will come from other planned projects in the area – thousands of new homes, a regional mall, lots of new retail and commercial development – and you have a potential traffic crisis.

Mr. Barlos and some Monclova residents have expressed several concerns with the plans Eclat has presented to the county plan commission. Among them:

* It proposes six new curb cuts along the north side of Monclova Road, in a distance of less than a mile. Those curb cuts would mean six new places for people to stop suddenly to turn on a 50 mph road.

The Eclat plan also doesn’t provide any internal access to two nearby parcels of land; if those landowners ever decided to develop their parcels, they’d require two more curb cuts on Monclova, bringing the total to eight.

* The site plan does not include any plans for a future five-lane road the township expects to build through the property to link the future mall site to Maumee-Western Road, Mr. Barlos said. He wants Eclat to contribute to the cost of building the road; if it is not included in the site plan, the cost is left to local government, he said.

* The plan does not include easements along Monclova or Maumee-Western roads to allow for future widening of those roads.

Toledo businessman R.C. Young, the driving force behind Eclat, said he is willing to discuss these problems.

The county plan commission will consider the Eclat site plan on May 27.

For his part, Mr. Young, who owns Young Medical & Home Respiratory Equipment on Monroe Street, said he hopes the park could attract the same sort of development that Arrowhead Park in has – light industries and offices. He said the 191-acre Eclat center would house one or two large businesses, as well as “a lot of small ones.”

Mr. Barlos, the former mayor of Maumee who sits on the county plan commission, said that he won’t approve the Eclat plan until he is certain that “this isn’t setting a bad precedent for all the development that will follow it.”

He said he plans to set up a meeting with all the involved parties – the township, county, and city, as well as the local landowners – to discuss how to best plan the entire area.

Commissioner Barlos said he remembers attending a groundbreaking for a project on Airport Highway in 1985, and being surrounded by cornfields. “I even saw a deer,” he said. “They had one opportunity to plan development along one of our key arteries, and they missed. We can’t make any more mistakes.”

*

Mr. Barlos said he understands Toledo’s pressure to sell the land for Jeep, but said that planning will have to take priority. “I don’t want to delay the deal, but if we have to, we have to,” he said.

*

This isn’t the first time that Monclova has been a battlefield over development.

In 1973, local home builder Don Scholz was riding high, a star on the national scene. Four years earlier, he had been named national homebuilder of the year by Professional Builder magazine, which called him a pioneer in modular housing.

“Ahead of his times and ahead of his competitors,” the magazine said, calling him “the single greatest influence in post-war housing design.” His company, Scholz Homes, was a national success.

Everything was going so well, in fact, that he made his biggest proposal yet: a $400 million planned community, called River Bluffs at Fallen Timbers, in Monclova Township.

It was to be the largest private real estate development in the Toledo area’s history: 1,400 acres housing 15,000 people, along with industrial, office, and commercial areas. It would have created a community the size of Perrysburg from scratch, on much the same land the city of Toledo would buy up more than a decade later.

But Monclova residents, angered by the project’s huge scope, rebelled. A grass-roots movement, organized to oppose the project, pressured township and county officials to nix the deal.

They found an ally in a young planner with the Toledo-Lucas County plan commissions, Marcy Kaptur, who wrote a highly controversial report opposing River Bluffs years before becoming Toledo’s congresswoman.

In the end, the township denied Mr. Scholz the zoning changes he needed to go ahead, and the project was killed.

Within two years, Mr. Scholz had declared bankruptcy. He placed the blame squarely on the people of the township: “Marcy Kaptur took it on herself to stir up the farmers in Monclova,” he said in 1990.

*

For years after River Bluffs, developers stayed away from Monclova and its anti-development reputation, despite its excellent location. Seeing cheap land to the north in Springfield and Sylvania townships, they moved in and created many of the subdivisions that former Toledoans inhabit today.

But in the last few years, with many areas to the north nearing traffic-clogging capacity, developers have begun to move back to Monclova.

Yet, the fear of what could be coming to Monclova has convinced at least one family to stay away.

“I had a couple from Perrysburg Township call me,” Maumee Mayor Steve Pauken said. “They were considering buying some property on Monclova Road, and they wanted to know if what they’d heard about all this development was true. I told them what I thought would happen, with the mall on the south, Eclat to the north, a new interchange coming to the east, all those new homes to the west.

“And they came to the conclusion that they really didn’t want to live there,” he said. “They didn’t want to be that close to that kind of development.”

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