City considers options for Knolls project

The+47+acres+Western+Knolls+property+owned+by+the+City+is+located+on+Oxford+Reily+Road+and+Brookville+Road.+%3Cem%3EMap+provided+by+Oxford+Community+Development+Director+Sam+Perry%3C%2Fem%3E

The 47 acres Western Knolls property owned by the City is located on Oxford Reily Road and Brookville Road. Map provided by Oxford Community Development Director Sam Perry

By Claudia Zaunz

After two decades of lawsuits and debate, Oxford could soon have a new residential area.

Oxford’s Community Development Department’s hopes are up once more for the Western Knolls property. In mid-November, the city organized a “design charrette,” an event that invited citizens to collaborate, give immediate feedback and  come up with a vision for development. The event was part of the World Town Planning Day, which is celebrated in 30 countries on four continents each November.

“I wanted to see a more proactive culture in the community,” said Community Development Director Sam Perry, who organized the event.

This year, the city will hire a consultant to do a comprehensive housing study for further analysis.

For now, having met with an architect, Oxford’s Planning Commission is still debriefing and trying to package what happened at the charrette.

“Instead of us just guessing, we will have true facts of where the [housing] gaps are,” said Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene.

None of the design charrette participants envisioned 100% traditional single-family housing, which is how the property is zoned.

“What we saw was a blend of different uses that were complementary to the neighborhood and also served community needs,” Perry said.

“Housing cost is a problem here,” he added, commenting on the lack of affordable housing compared to other cities in Butler County.  

The design charrette was a first step toward finding solutions and housing for all.

“I believe that processes that meaningfully involves citizens in planning their own community is just a great idea in terms of a good community,” said Kathleen Knight-Abowitz, of the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University and newly-elected member of the Talawanda Board of Education.

Three long-standing lawsuits

At the November meeting, charrette participants reviewed long-standing plans related to how to use the Western Knolls’ 47 vacant acres in the southwest part of Oxford.

The land has access to two major streets and is located near Talawanda Middle School. It has approximately 1,500 feet of frontage on Oxford Reily Road and approximately 760 feet of frontage on Brookville Road.

Oxford’s City Council, at the request of surrounding property owners, rezoned part of Western Knolls to single-family in 2001. The prior zoning had been a mix of commercial, multi-family and single-family zoning. Immediately after the property was rezoned, the subdivision’s developer, Western Knolls Inc., sued the city to restore  the property’s prior zoning, as well as for monetary damages.

In 2008, Council authorized the purchase of the 47 acres for f$3.75 million , thus settling three long-standing lawsuits. By reaching an agreement prior to trial, the city ended the dispute with the developer and avoided the uncertainty of a jury trial.

Since then, nothing has happened. Even after reducing the price tag of the property, from $79,014 per acre to $47,000 per acre in 2015, the city has not been able to sell it.

Economic Development Director G. Alan Kyger said that land in Oxford now typically sells for $5,000 to $10,000 an acre.

“We have had several people interested in developing it, but what happens is, they know what we paid for it and that scares them away,” he said.

The design charrette wanted a master plan for the site, so that the city can then determine if it is best to develop the land in-house or to solicit developers. Once a master plan is completed, it may provide areas for incentivized ‘over 55’ or ‘affordable housing,’ while still providing areas for single-family housing which can provide a higher sale price and buffer.

“I would say we are probably a year-and-a-half to two years away from construction,” Perry said

As the city looks to the future, it envisions a Western Knolls project that could include a range of features.

Involving Western Knolls in Oxford Area Trail System

A path connecting Talawanda Middle School to Oxford’s Community Park and the Aquatic Center is one of the ideas the city is considering.  

The construction of phase IV of the Oxford Area Trail System (OATS), a project funded partly through the Ohio Department of Transportation, was authorized by Council in mid-October.

So far, council approved a design estimate and a grant of $5,000. Involving the Western Knolls property in the project is a new idea that the city is now reviewing.

Greene said the “balance between what is best for residents, the most user-friendly with what’s the most cost-effective and smart” will determine whether this project is feasible.

“Now is the time,” she said.

“We have to weigh both of these (factors) and find a smart solution for this area.”

Commercial businesses may be included

Desired commercial businesses for the area are small businesses, a coffee shop, a bank branch or an insurance company. Once the master plan is finalized, the varying levels of zoning and densities need the Planning Commission and Oxford’s Council’s approval. The necessity of rezoning the Western Knolls property is possible and highly likely, according to Kyger.

“I think that there is an opportunity for small business starts if we can get commercial rents to be reduced because we don’t have much rentable office space, or business start-up space,” Perry said.

Oxford Lanes, the bowling alley on Reily Road, is now the only commercial business in that area. It has been there since January of 1963.

“Across the street, in my opinion, would be a decent location for a movie theater, if we can get the money for that,” Greene said.

Oxford no longer has a movie theater and the nearest one is located in Hamilton.