Austinburg redevelopment approved — The Kentucky Post, 12/29/04

By Jeanne Houck

The Covington [KY] City Commission on Tuesday approved a redevelopment plan for the northeast section of Austinburg in which 26 commercial buildings, vacant lots and homes will be acquired to make way for 43 owner-occupied, single-family homes.

It was a tumultuous end to a tumultuous two-year-long process.

Complaints by two opponents of the plan resulted in the decision of one commissioner to abstain from the vote and later spurred the rest of the commission to consider — then reject — a proposal to rescind the 3-1 decision to approve the plan because of a procedural question.

Mayor Butch Callery and Commissioners Jerry Bamberger and Dennis Williams voted for the plan, describing it as a welcomed opportunity for the city to strengthen and preserve a historic neighborhood.

"It's a great area, and we need to save the area," said Callery, who lived in Austinburg as a youth. "I feel it's an area well worth saving."

Commissioner Bernie Moorman agreed the plan was a good one, but voted against it because it will allow the city to force the sale of property using the power of eminent domain — which he described as a "cruel and not necessary process."

"The plan has good intentions, but it's an evil process by which to execute the plan," Moorman said.

Callery and Bamberger said the city rarely has had to resort to using eminent domain, and hopes not to have to this time, either.

State law allows public officials to invoke eminent domain for the public good in areas that are blighted and suffer from a shortage of sound housing.

Williams warned that it is dangerous to reject any plan solely because of the possibility of eminent domain because "without it, redevelopment could be stifled by the whims of a few."

Commissioner Alex Edmondson abstained from the vote.

He said after the meeting that plan opponent Gailen Bridges, a Covington attorney, accused him of making a comment during a public hearing Dec. 13 that showed Edmondson had made up his mind on the Austinburg plan before considering all the information he should have.

Bridges' wife, Debra Bridges, owns the Covington Mobile Home Park off Patton Street, which is targeted for demolition,

Edmondson said Gailen Bridges' accusation is baseless, but that he decided to abstain from voting on the Austinburg plan because he didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the initiative.

After the vote, a second opponent of the plan, Gary Smith of Oakland Avenue, complained that the public had not been given an opportunity to speak.

He produced a letter sent to affected property owners by the city's Economic Development Department that stated they would be given a chance to weigh in on the Austinburg plan at Tuesday's meeting.

The letter indeed said just that, but it was wrong, city officials said.

Callery said he made it clear at a Dec. 13 public hearing that there would be no public discussion of the issue on Tuesday.

The commission decided to stand by its vote after asking if any audience members Tuesday wanted to speak and only Bridges and Smith — both of whom spoke in opposition to the plan at the Dec. 13 public hearing — said yes.

There were no more than 20 people in Tuesday's audience, which is a sharp drop in the numbers that packed previous meetings of the city commission and county planning commission about Austinburg.

The numbers have declined as the city has publicly explained and modified its redevelopment plan.

Thirteen of the 18 people who spoke at the city commission's Dec. 13 public hearing supported the plan.

The area targeted for redevelopment runs roughly from Eastern Avenue east to the Licking River, and from the CSX Transportation railroad tracks at East 15th Street south to the alley between East 16th and East 17th streets.

Also included in the redevelopment area is Oakland Avenue from the alley between East 16th and East 17th streets south to Delmar Place, and a portion of Thomas Street.

In addition, the city wants to renovate a vacant building on Eastern Avenue for commercial use or for use as a community center, expand Austinburg Park and add parking, trails on the floodwall and green space on the river side of the floodwall.

The city estimates that the public cost of the development will be $1,959,000.

On Tuesday, when Bamberger made the motion to approve the redevelopment plan, he read aloud a lengthy list of reasons in support of it included in the body of the ordinance. The plan:
  • Won the approval of the Kenton County Planning Commission Nov. 4.
  • Provides for the temporary and permanent relocation of families displaced by the project.
  • Dovetails with plans by the Covington Community Center to build a residential development in the area.
  • Would improve property values and preserve the historical and architectural features of Austinburg while eliminating blight.
Smith and his mother, 76-year-old Jean Falk, wince when the word "blight" is used in connection with three mobile homes she owns on the street. They produced pictures that show what appear to be well-maintained homes.

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