BY RANDY McNUTT
The Cincinnati Enquirer
LEMON TOWNSHIP -- This historic little community is Butler County's version of World War II-era Poland -- annexed by powerful neighbors but refusing to die.
Seen through a garage door, Monroe city workers tend equipment in the city garage area of Lemon Township.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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"We're surrounded," said James W. Croucher, a longtime observer of township politics. "In my time, I've seen the township reduced by 60 percent."
It has gone from about 34 square miles in the 1800s to about 13 square miles in the early 1990s to about 3 square miles of unincorporated area today.
The only physical reminder of the past that still lies in the township is the Miami-Erie Canal's Excello lock near Ohio 73.
Today, Lemon Township consists mostly of older homes, farms, some body shops and other small businesses. The township's core is the business area on Ohio 73, near Ohio 4, where you can find Kroger and McDonald's.
Oblivious, most drivers don't know they've left Middletown. Lemon Township has become more of a symbol of the hungry future -- and typical of American townships near expanding suburban cities. As they annex revenue-producing areas of neighboring townships, the cities leave only small parts of township land that nobody wants. Squeezed between the cities of Trenton, Middletown and Monroe, Lemon Township fights to exist. Monroe, technically a part of the township, physically divides the unincorporated part of the township. A tiny part of Lemon lies west of the Great Miami River, the rest of it to the east.
Once, Lemon Township was a prosperous farming community with interesting small towns -- Middletown, Amanda, Monroe, Lesourdsville and Blue Ball. But slowly, the township lost vital parts of its history and culture.
In the early 1990s, Middletown annexed Blue Ball, perhaps the quintessential small-town name. The community grew around an early tavern whose owner displayed a big blue ball to attract illiterate stagecoach drivers. A ball still stands to remind people of the name. Several years ago, Monroe annexed the Lesourdsville area, home of Americana Amusement Park on Ohio 4. The former Lesourdsville Lake started in the 1920s, near the Great Miami River.
Years ago, as Middletown and Monroe grew, they needed stretching room. That started what is euphemistically called the annexation process. By 1995, little of Lemon remained. The township police force -- once 20 officers and four dispatchers -- was closed. Trustees talked of disbanding.
"Lemon Township is a good example of what can happen to a big, progressive township that gets annexed," said Trustee Elsa Croucher, wife of Mr. Croucher. "For years we have asked the county to give us information on how to disband, but we've heard nothing. If the time comes when Monroe wants to withdraw from the township, then we'd lack enough people to stay a township. We'd fall under the county common pleas court's jurisdiction. The court would decide how to divide the remaining land among adjoining townships."
That probably won't happen any time soon. Monroe Mayor Elbert Tannreuther said the city has no immediate plans to annex any township area.
"There's still some (attractive) area left down by Excello," he said. "We've agreed not to touch it. As long as we're providing police, fire, road and safety protection, the township is happy and we're happy."
Mr. Croucher, who served as trustee from 1970 to 1995, thinks that Lemon Township, and townships in general, have to reconsider their mission.
"Years ago, it was a day's trip to the county seat," he said. "Township government was the local government that met all your needs. Today, it has become like an old horse. We have duplication of services. I hate to say it, but it's time to reorganize."
Annexation of township land is a statewide and national problem, said Michael Cochran, executive director of the Ohio Township Association in Columbus.
"We think it's wrong that cities are allowed to take at least some . . . people in when they don't want to go (be annexed)," he said. "Yet it happens all the time. Actually, township government is for many people the preferred form of government. It's less costly, and it doesn't have the layers of bureaucracy of the cities.
"But under Ohio law, there's not much we can do when cities start annexing our territory. Cities have a spending problem that they want to cure by increasing their tax base. It doesn't help."
He said some hope remains, however. He described Senate Bill 162 -- to improve a township's legal bargaining power during annexations -- as promising, and he said township and city leaders are discussing ways to reform the annexation process.
"The Municipal League swings a big stick," said Mr. Croucher. "I've watched the group fight annexation reform. It's the way things are. As cities grow and expand, the township form of government -- neighbor-to-neighbor -- is becoming a thing of the past.
"Monroe and Lemon Township have been going at it tooth and nail for years. It's a continuing problem throughout the state. The legislature is trying to "level the playing field,' making it more difficult for cities to annex township land, but the leveling hasn't happened yet."
In adjacent Warren County, Deerfield Township officials have been trying to prevent what has happened to Lemon Township.
Mason continues to annex prime Deerfield areas, such as Paramount's Kings Island.
Mason - Deerfield squabbling has led to the breakup of a joint fire district, but Deerfield has not been able to stop the annexations. Mr. Croucher said Lemon Township gave about $200,000 worth of road equipment to Monroe when that community assumed street duties for the township several years ago.
"We haven't lost any land in the last two years, but before that, we were hit especially hard," Mrs. Croucher said.
"We're now down to areas that aren't attractive to the cities. We're at a standstill."
Does her community have a future?
"It's bleak," she said.