By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer
WEST CHESTER TWP. - Ray Bowman and his wife trek to Sharon Woods once a week to enjoy the walking and biking paths.
West Chester Township, with all its residential and business growth, doesn't have anything comparable. And that needs to change, says the longtime resident, who has raised four daughters here.
"We need to do whatever it takes to maintain the quality of life we all enjoy," Bowman, 69, said. "There's a lot of people in my age group that like to use the parks. We've often said we wish we didn't have to drive all the way to Sharonville to have a great walking path."
There are also few permanent soccer and baseball fields in this rapidly expanding Butler County community of about 58,000 residents. That is why Bowman and other park advocates are promoting a 1.95-mill continuing levy to go toward $60 million in park and recreation improvements park officials hope to make over the next five years. Voters will decide the levy, called Issue 6, on Nov. 4.
So far, Bowman says, residents, businesses and community youth sports groups have contributed about $20,000 to fund a public relations campaign for the levy.
West Chester is the latest Greater Cincinnati community in a race to preserve green space - and to develop it into parks and sports fields.
In neighboring Liberty Township last fall, voters defeated a 0.75-mill park levy. A 1-mill replacement levy, however, passed last spring in Warren County's Deerfield Township.
Middletown City Council on Tuesday is expected to pass an ordinance creating a $500 park impact fee on all new home lots to pay for park development on the east side of the city and to buy land for future ones.
And in Hamilton County's Green Township, leaders recently moved toward buying 34 acres for $70,000 an acre - a total of $2.38 million - for what would become the township's largest park.
With several grant awards and private contributions, West Chester has been able to acquire property and move ahead on some park projects such as ball fields at Beckett Park, Iams Wiggly Field dog park and a tree grove at the Voice of America Park - 330 acres donated to the township by the federal government.
But more money is needed for developing the parks, a historic schoolhouse, and a system of greenways and bike trails connecting it all, township park officials say.
West Chester leaders and some residents believe saving some land from development saves money in the long run. For instance, every time a former farm turns into a new subdivision, it costs residents millions in additional services, primarily school taxes, Trustee Catherine Stoker says.
But other residents complain the township should focus on flooding problems and roads, which have grown congested.
George Lang is running for trustee against incumbent and park levy advocate Dave Tacosik. Lang says it recently took him an hour to get from his Wetherington house to Union Centre Boulevard. He opposes the levy.
"I am for parks, but I think this levy is at the wrong time," Lang said. "Roads and flood management should be a higher priority than parks. If you travel Tylersville Road at rush hour, you know exactly what I mean."
Tacosik supports the levy, but doesn't see that the township needs to buy that much more land. In the last few years, West Chester has added 438 of acres in parkland and needs to develop what it has, he noted.
"We have a reasonably good handle on the land we need," he said.
Trustee Jose Alvarez voted against placing the levy on the fall ballot. He said if the parks department makes $60 million in improvements over five years, they are spending about $12 million a year - more than any other department in the township.
The township's park department budget already has ballooned from an annual $58,000 five years ago to $844,000 this year, he noted. A "much smaller" levy may have made more sense than the 1.95-mill one, he added.
What the park levy would provide
18 soccer fields and eight baseball diamonds at Voice of America Park and Beckett Park
Picnic shelters, playgrounds and miles of paved walkways at those parks
Bike lanes/paths/trails through West Chester from the east and west boundary lines
Restrooms, lighting and internal park roads at VOA and Beckett Park
Acquisition of additional park property
Tennis courts at VOA and resurfacing of those at Keehner Park
Restoration of parts of VOA
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