Darby Creek Advocate Volume 11, Issue 1  January 2003

Columbus Agrees to Moratorium, Expands Conservation District

Just a little more than two years ago, development patterns were status quo in the Darby watershed in western Franklin County. The city of Columbus, the major player in central Ohio, was aggressively annexing land and approving typical residential housing projects. Meanwhile, county officials, fearful of
losing control over unincorporated areas, were threatening to promote development outside the city limits using non-standard sewage treatment systems, such as land application. Urban sprawl had arrived at Darby Creek.

Much has changed since then. In November, Columbus agreed to halt development in the watershed for two years. Then in late January the Ohio EPA gave final approval to a historic plan, put forth by Columbus officials, that will require environmental planning in western Franklin County. The plan significantly expands a much smaller “Conservation District” established in the early 90’s west of Hilliard. The new district, which will be called the Environmentally Sensitive Development Area (ESDA), includes most of the Darby watershed in Franklin County. The EPA has mandated that no extensions of sewer and water lines occur until certain planning goals are met.

Columbus’s proposal for the ESDA came after DCA and other groups raised concerns about the effects of development on Darby, and especially on the critical Hellbranch Run tributary.

The two-year moratorium was passed by City Council after a grassroots group collected enough signatures to force the issue onto the May ballot. The signature drive was not easy. Earlier in the year
things looked bleak for Progress with Economic and Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the group seeking to stall urban sprawl near Darby. After going through the painstaking process of collecting over 12,000 signatures, the group learned that their signatures had been invalidated because they weren’t notarized.

But the volunteers never gave up, and in October returned to City Hall with more than enough signatures—this time carefully notarized—to force the issue onto the next ballot. The drive was spear-headed by PEER president and DCA trustee Paul Dumouchelle.

Few observers predicted what happened next: Rather than let the issue get on the ballot, City Council reversed course and voted 6-1 to accept the proposed ordinance as law. The move came despite opposition from Mayor Michael Coleman. Maryellen O’Shaughnessy was the lone dissenter on council.

Cynics speculated that the pro-development Council adopted the moratorium to avoid a public rejection of the city’s annexation policy.

In accepting the ordinance, few council members praised the moratorium. Council President Matt Habash went so far as to state that the moratorium had been driven by “folks who want to stop growth and hurt Columbus.”

As if to emphasize their disapproval of the measure they had just approved, council members insisted that the city had already taken adequate measures to protect Darby.

DCA disagrees. Comprehensive planning in the watershed has yet to occur, and for this reason DCA welcomes the two-year pause.

Equally welcome is the EPA’s endorsement of the environmental district, an endorsement that gives official state sanction to our view that planning is needed. Perhaps not coincidentally, in sanctioning the district the EPA urged the city to put a timeframe on planning—a timeframe that mirrors the two-year moratorium.

With the moratorium and the conservation district a framework is now in place to create a Darby plan. Within the planning area, the following conditions must be met before any major development occurs:

· Riparian buffer restrictions must be in place
· Comprehensive stormwater management planning must occur
· Conservation development restrictions must be set, and involve the concept of clustering development to preserve tracts of open space, including farmland

In addition, the plan calls for Columbus to organize an External Advisory Group (EAG) composed of critical stakeholders. These stakeholders will include townships and municipalities, community groups, environmental organizations, building interests, and government agencies such as OSU extension, ODNR, and OEPA. The group will study issues related to development and water quality, and make recommendations, including recommendations on how to measure the success of the district.

One gray area of the plan relates to how much influence the advisory group will have in shaping the actual development plan. According to the EPA, input from the group will be “non-binding,” and Columbus will retain ultimate authority over its services. But at the same time the agency states that the Director of the EPA “will determine if the EAG recommendations are sufficient to protect water quality and will update the plan accordingly.” DCA will be especially interested in how this language is interpreted.

DCA fully endorses the ESDA. However, the district still does not include a critical 10,000-acre area along the eastern border of the watershed. Despite our recommendation that this area be placed in the ESDA, the EPA “respectfully declined” our suggestion. An example of why this protection is needed was seen last year when developers convinced Mayor Coleman to drop a promised open space provision in the area.

DCA also urged the EPA to require planning to address water quality problems revealed in its ongoing Darby pollution study. The agency has pledged to use findings from the study—due by the end of the year—in an update of the Columbus plan.

The Darby environmental district has the potential to be a historic achievement. For a large municipality to agree in principal to make environmental protection a priority on a par with growth is rare. Even rarer is the attempt to maintain a high quality river in proximity to a major metropolitan center. If successful, central Ohio can rightly hold itself up as a model for responsible growth. The city deserves a lot of credit for agreeing, if sometimes reluctantly, to forge this path.

This is not to say we face an easy road ahead. DCA fully expects it will be an uphill battle to get sufficient protective measures written into the plan. Our goal is not only to ensure that future development does not harm the Darby ecosystem; our goal is to improve conditions and correct many of the mistakes of the past.

Given this window of opportunity, it would be unfortunate if Columbus does not fully embrace the potential of the environmental district. Unfortunately, it is not hard to envision a scenario in which petitioners are back in City Hall, signatures in hand, two years from now. If that is the case, it will mean that two more years have gone by without adequate protections for central Ohio’s last truly wild place.

John Tetzloff