Sunday, October 5, 2003

Small town sees big growth ahead

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

UNION - A sleepy little town is about to be awakened.A major road project coupled with a blueprint to develop an entirely new town center will make Union unrecognizable within just a few years. Planners predict hundreds of homes, neighborhood businesses, an elementary school, walking and bike paths, manmade lakes and more will transform what has long been a simple country crossroads south of Florence.

"What we'll create," said Union Mayor Don Kirby, "is a whole new town."

Residents in and around this once-rural, now fast-growing Boone County suburb are used to change. New schools, residents, homes and businesses have all moved in over the last decade, gobbling up farmland like pellets in a Pac Man game. The population doubled in the 1990s and now stands at just about 3,000.

But none of the past growth will compare to what's coming in the next 15 years.

In less than a year Union City officials and Boone County planners expect to begin putting into effect the 2000 Union Town Plan, a long-range planning tool designed to not only strategically guide and locate new construction but to also create a compact town center that will give Union a small-town identity and feel - even amid the growth.

"You don't come across the opportunity to create something like this very often," said Kevin Costello, executive director of the Boone County Planning Commission. The group was instrumental in crafting the plan with city officials and residents, and ultimately is responsible for making it happen.

Construction of a new route through Union is what spurred the plan for the town's future. U.S. 42, a major four-lane road that stretches for nearly three miles, is expected to open by next summer. The existing stretch of that road through Union will be maintained, but the city's major thoroughfare will shift to the new road.

"We really had no choice," Kirby said. "The state told us they were going to build a new (U.S.) 42 through town, so we figured we better be ready - because we know more growth is going to come when the road opens."

Kirby is confident that the simple cut of a major road can lead to double the population of a city such as his. Perhaps within the next decade, he surmises.

Two of Northern Kentucky's best-known residential developers - Arlinghaus Builders and The Drees Co. - have already begun plucking up land and sketching out plans to build some of the 3,700 new homes the plan envisions.

So many new residents are expected that the Boone County Board of Education plans to build a new elementary school in the next four to five years, said Superintendent Bryan Blavatt.

The new school will join Ryle High School and Gray Middle School at the southern end of Union. The middle and high schools, which opened just 10 years ago, already are bursting because of the city's growth. Eight classrooms were added to Gray last year, and an expansion will be needed at Ryle within the next two years.

"We've already seen tremendous growth in that area," Blavatt said. "When the new U.S. 42 opens, we're going to see even more people moving in."

Union is already attractive to outsiders looking for a cozy, yet dynamic place to live.

Though it has a country, small-town feel, it's only minutes from Mall Road, the retail hub in Florence and Interstate 75. Upscale subdivisions with names like "Triple Crown," "The Downs" and "Whispering Trails" have sprouted up in and around the city and among the tobacco and horse farms that dominated this area for decades.

A new YMCA has opened. Lassing Point, one of the best public golf courses in the state, is just outside of town. A complex that includes a Kroger, restaurants, smaller shops and a public library was developed on the north end of town near the city's boundary with Florence.

But the middle of town along the existing U.S. 42 lacks the comfort and attractiveness of the neighborhood business district officials desire.

Stores are spread far apart. There is no consistent design among the buildings. The main intersection of U.S. 42 and Mount Zion/Hathaway Road has become notorious for long lines of traffic.

The Union Town plan calls for the creation of a town center around that U.S. 42-Hathaway Road crossing. Developers must follow strict architectural rules and other guidelines to accomplish what the city wants for its new town center.

"The purpose of the Union Town Center ... is to allow for a condensed commercial and residential area that is pedestrian-scale and creates a sense of place for the surrounding area," the plan says. "Mixed-use development with buildings designed to accommodate commercial uses on the first level and office or residential uses on the second level are encouraged. (The plan) allows commercial, office and residential uses in a concentrated area which does not promote a continuous or extensive strip of commercial development along the new U.S. 42."

That means neighborhood businesses rather than strip centers. Houses and town homes built close together with parking in the rear to encourage residents to use sidewalks and bike paths. Buildings on the main roads with required facades: brick, stone or "material having that appearance." Vinyl and aluminum siding are banned.

Subdivisions will be built north of the town center off of the new U.S. 42, but walking and bike paths will lead residents to the town center.

Success will mean a tightly woven focal point that will give Union an identity it now lacks.

"It's going to feel more like a neighborhood," Costello said.

The plan will develop gradually over the next 10 to 15 years - not soon enough for Mike Sebald.

Sebald, 38, drives through Union almost daily, either heading to work at Merchants Cold Storage in Richwood or picking up his daughter at Gray Middle.

"The traffic can be awful. It's a headache getting through 42," said Sebald, who lives in nearby Burlington. "The road will be great for traffic, and if they can build a little town center, that will be nice for the community."

Not everyone is happy.

Jenny Gripshover laments a future of stylish buildings, precision development and the like.

The 16-year-old Ryle High School student was raised and lives on a farm south of Union near Big Bone.

"I remember when the field across from Ryle was a hayfield. I've always loved this area because it was a farming community. But it's changed with all the growth, and I guess even more is coming.

"It makes me sad. I don't want it to change."


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