Sunday, August 06, 2000

Romar Villa residents forced from homes

Park owner selling land for Lowe's store

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MIAMI TOWNSHIP — It's not hard for Elaine Barbish to remember her travels. They're captured in photographs along the walls of her Romar Villa mobile home near Milford.

        She strolled by the Great Wall of China and caught a peek of Chairman Mao's home. In Moscow, she was accosted by a young soldier who rapped at the door and hustled her husband away.

[photo] Bill and Ruth Baker and other residents at Romar Villa mobile home park are being forced to move.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        Now, the 78-year-old Miami Township woman must take down the pictures because the mobile home park is being sold against the will of her and her neighbors. Park owner Jake Sieber is selling the land to Lowe's, a home improvement retailer that wants its stake in the rapidly growing corridor at Interstate 275 and Ohio 28 in Clermont County.

        The park's 169 residents wonder where they'll live.

        Home by home, word has spread and resistance grown among this group of mostly senior citizens. So has the realization that there is little they can do to block a private sale between a willing seller and buyer.

        “I've been here 16 years and loved every second of it,” Mrs. Barbish said. “It's rough, you know. Giving this up will be.”

        As is typical with mobile home parks, the residents own their homes but not the ground beneath. They pay $250 a month to rent the space.

        Unusual is the residents' hard work over the last three decades to keep the park looking nice. They trim grass, trees and shrubs — not just in their own yards but throughout the park.

        “We've cut the lawn for 32 years. We're devastated,” said Paul Mackenzie, shaking with anger. “It has deteriorated to this.”

        A spokesperson for North Carolina-based Lowe's, the world's second-largest home improvement retailer with a stock market value of $6.2 billion, would not provide detailed information about its Milford plans until it buys the site. The company drilled for soil samples at Romar Villa last week, a typical step to ensure the ground can support a massive retail store.

        When asked what impact he thinks the sale will have on the park's residents, Mr. Sieber responded with silence.

        “I really can't answer that. I've got to go,” Mr. Sieber said.

        In a recent letter, Mr. Sieber told park residents they will have 180 days to leave the park when the sale is completed.

        “We are actively looking for another nearby site to relocate your homes,” Mr. Sieber wrote. “However, no assurances can be made at this time.”

        A 20-acre space along Deerfield Road is the only property zoned for a mobile home park in Miami Township. Other mobile home parks are either too full or won't accept the 20- to 30-year-old mobile homes that are common at Romar Villa.

        Many residents are skeptical that Mr. Sieber will buy land and relocate the park, so they focus on zoning. Lowe's needs to change the zoning from mobile to commercial to establish a store.

        Larry Fronk, Miami Township's community development director, expects Lowe's will seek the zoning change within a month or two. The township's trustees have the last word on any zoning change.

        “I guess we're pleading with the township to have a heart,” said resident Carol Newman. “They'll be seniors some day.”

        The trustees know of Lowe's plans. If the zoning application is completed correctly and meets requirements, the store is expected to be built.

        “We'll look at what they want for that site, see if it's appropriate,” said Miami Township Trustee Jean Schmidt. “It has to be the highest and best use of the land.”

        The area has become more appealing to retailers since I-275 was extended across Ohio 28 several years ago. Lowe's chief rival, California-based Home Depot, is building a $6.4 million store 2 miles east of the mobile home park.

        Trustee Ed Humphrey said he is “neutral” on Lowe's proposal but advocates commercial development in the area. It's good, he said, because it provides more property taxes for the county.

        “I have always been a proponent for economic development,” said Joe Uecker, Miami Township trustee. “I feel for these people. Obviously, it's a private property issue. The Constitution allows him to make the best use of his property.”

        The Romar Villa residents understand there is little they can say to dissuade Mr. Sieber. Their home is his property and all the meetings, phone calls, letters and pleas won't change that.

        Many residents, like Mrs. Barbish, are preparing to search for a new home. She has trimmed expenses and sold clothes on consignment to raise extra money for her move. She should be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment, but it certainly will be more expensive than the $250 she pays in monthly rent at Romar Villa.

        The extra costs don't bother her. The lost memories do.

        Pointing to the photo of Moscow, she finishes explaining her encounter with the Russian soldier. The soldier came to their room because he figured the American couple would have goods to trade. Certain items were scarce in Moscow in 1988, and the soldier knew the couple from such a wealthy country, where goods are so easily bought and sold would help.

        “We gave him four ball point pens and some soap,” Mrs. Barbish said. “I couldn't believe something so small could make someone so happy.”

        They ended the trip earlier than expected because Mr. Barbish became ill. He died four months later of cancer.

        Mrs. Barbish always thought the pictures and mobile home would be a way to keep her husband with her. The home will be sold and the pictures tucked away.

        “That's what will hurt,” she said. “All those memories.”



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