Wednesday, September 25, 1996
No, Loveland, democracy's here to stay

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Loveland city officials could use a refresher course in representative government.

That's where elected officials act on behalf of the will of the people.

Somehow they got it backwards.

In July, city leaders accepted a bid to sell a sizable piece of potential park land to a developer. Drees Co. planned to put condos on the property.

A group of Loveland residents rallied against the sale. They circulated a petition and got the question of the land's use on the November ballot.

On Sept. 9 - six months ahead of schedule and nearly two months before people could vote - the city closed the deal. On Monday, angry citizens filed suit to keep the issue on the ballot.

Loveland's elected leaders say they just wanted to cut a good deal. Time was of the essence. They could not wait for the will of the people to be registered at the ballot box. Angry neighbors, prefering a park to condos, say the city's honchos can only see greenbacks where there should be a green belt.

On Tuesday, Hamilton County officials decided the issue will stay on the ballot. It will be voted on in November. As best I can determine, if people vote to keep the land green and undeveloped, the whole deal may end up in court.

Regardless of the outcome, the city's maneuver leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's hard to swallow elected leaders skipping a step in the democratic process.

Park deal

Loveland bought the 41 wooded acres in question in 1994 for $650,000.

The land sits next to Phillips Park, the city's emerald gem of ball fields to play on, trails to wander and trees to hug.

The new property starts out flat at the park's entrance. Then, it slopes downhill as it runs toward the Little Miami River.

Initially, the 41 acres were supposed to become part of a regional recreation center. That idea fell through this year. So, the city decided to sell the land to a developer for a housing project.

Three bids were received this summer. Drees came in the highest: $1,014,000. If the city accepted that offer, it would make $364,000.

But it had to act fast.

As Loveland's mayor, Lee Skierkiewicz said, ''We weren't about to let Drees get away.'' So, the city declared the pending sale to be an ''emergency.'' The rules for selling property were waived. Drees' offer was accepted.

The mayor feels he did the right thing.

''Every time you say you are going to build something around here, this happens,'' Mr. Skierkiewicz said. ''You always make someone mad. Because you're always putting something new in somebody's backyard.''

And what about the vote?

''We're not denying anyone the right to vote,'' he said.

Drees would put 71-80 condos on 20 of the 41 acres.

''Maybe 'condos' is the wrong word,'' the mayor said. ''They are single attached family units starting at $210,000.''

After the single attached family units are built and the bulldozers depart, there's the small matter of the remaining 21 acres. The mayor said Drees would deed that land back to the city and it could become part of Phillips Park. That way, everybody wins.

Except democracy.

Divided views

Quaint, picturesque Loveland is not at ease on this issue.

''On the one side,'' says Jimmy Brown, a Loveland resident and an ''on-the-sidelines observer'' for 26 years, ''you have the new people in town. They enjoy the changes of new business and new homes.

''On the other side, you have people who have lived here all of their lives and who like things just the way they are.''

Mr. Brown, an engineer, prefers ''managed growth. But the city doesn't have a firm idea of how development proceeds.''

Or how democracy works.

Loveland's elected officials need to be reminded of an old American tradition.

In this country, politicians serve the people who elect them. Making money is nice, but not the prime directive.

Loveland's city council is to be admired for wanting to profit from this deal. Good government does not operate in the red.

All the same, I would rather see a city lose some money than see anyone lose the right to vote.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.