Saturday, April 4, 2009

Queensgate (IV): Time To Move Forward

In Part I, I described the great opportunity presented by the Queensgate Terminals.

In Part II, I described the blatant "taking" of property rights and very expensive litigation that has kept it from happening, and could cost City taxpayers millions.

And in Part III, I tried to show that good views and high property values can coexist with a new terminal. They do in other parts of town.

But despite what I said in Part III, this is not even a simple up or down decision on whether this project can coexist with the community. This is not a question about a variance, or a new zoning proposal, and getting public input before deciding on a proposed change. And this is not a question where we are being asked to subsidize something with City or County funds.

Instead, those asking the City to continue to stand in the way of this project are asking the City Council, the City, and all City taxpayers, to continue to stand by, defend, and ultimately foot the bill for, completely inappropriate government actions that will likely cost millions.

And City Councilmembers who continue to stand against the project, too, are essentially standing in defense of this inappropriate government action (even though, like the Mayor, many weren't there when it happened). They too will ultimately be asking all taxpayers to foot the bill for this stance.

Respectfully, I think it’s far too much to ask.

In my judgment, the benefits of moving forward to the city, county and state dramatically, overwhelmingly outweigh any costs (and those costs can be minimized). On the flip side, the costs to taxpayers of stopping the project is in the millions from the takings compensation, property upkeep and further legal action alone, and far more in lost economic opportunity. And given the condition of the property, any benefit from that stance is hard to measure.

It's up to them, not me, but I hope the City will finally allow this strategic opportunity to move forward.

Queensgate (III): Viewing a "Working River"

In Part I, I described the great opportunity of the Queensgate Terminals.

In Part II, I described the blatant "taking" of property rights and very expensive litigation that has kept it from happening, and could cost taxpayers millions.

Now, I want to talk views. Part of the reason for the City’s actions is that some neighbors in Lower and East Price Hill are concerned about replacing a cement mixing facility and old port with a new, more modern and green port. They are concerned that it will impact the quality of life, their property values, etc. (Others actually support the project).

I never like to argue with citizens about their own neighborhood. And I certainly respect their passion for their neighborhood.

But others, including City Manager Dohoney, have already pointed out that this part of Queensgate is already industrial, that there are rail lines and manufacturing sites everywhere, that those sites are in plain view already and have been for decades, and that this site itself was used for barging and mooring before. Which explains why the zoning was never an issue.

Moreover, while we’ve never had enough port capacity, it’s safe to say we’ve always had a working river, and views of a working river. All along the river, East and West, we watch barges go to and fro. We watch trains come in and out all over the region. A balance between green and some “working elements” like ports is part of being on a river, and is part of the view. And if done right, it doesn’t undermine a good quality of life, high property values, or even parks.

A good example?
Just East of Ted Berry Park . . .

Right below the very popular Eden Park overlook, one of the best river views in the region . . .

Right under high-priced homes and redeveloped and new condos all along the river in East Walnut Hills . . .

Sits a port terminal . . . with a large industrial crane in plain sight.

This terminal transfers steel, and unlike the proposed Queensgate port, is not modern, and is not green. But there it is, is nestled among some of the nicest neighborhoods, some of the highest property values, and most popular parks in the whole city—and it's smack dab in the middle of some of the nicest, most highly sought views along the whole riverfront.

And as the above pictures show, this old crane actually is far closer to, and far more directly in the view of, these locations than the Queensgate port would be.

Indeed, most of the photos are from the most popular two river view locations in Eden Park. And one is even from the newly renovated Edgecliff Condominiums, which apparently has a nice new pool (with fancy columns). See, you can spot the crane directly between the two columns.

The point is, from all these great locations, you can't miss port activity. But while my photos focused only on the port element, it is part of a much broader tableau of the entire river. So when you look out at the river from those locations, while the port is there, it's part of a much broader and interesting picture. (Just as, from the West Side, you see dozens of rail tracks in the foreground as you look at the great view of downtown.)
And so this port's nearby location has not appeared to hurt Mt. Adams, Ted Berry Park, Eden Park, the Edgecliff or other new condos, or the expensive homes of East Walnut Hills. Or their reputations (and high values) for having great river views.

Queensgate (II): Egregious City Action Could Cost Millions

In Part 1, I explained the enormous opportunity presented by the Queensgate Terminal project.

And I explained that the hold-up in moving forward was neither money, nor zoning. What is the obstacle? . . . . .

The problem has been one of the most startling, indefensible cases of a government eviscerating private property rights you’ll ever see.

You see, after this property was leased for the development of this port, after the property owner and City had worked together to apply for federal funds to support the project, and after the City had previously granted permits for the project, in 2005, the City informed Queensgate Terminals that they planned to permanently cut off access from this property to any public roads (in this case, River Road). Just like that.

As Judge Painter of the Appellate Court wrote: “Here, it seems that the city proposes to landlock the 30 acres, not just legally, but actually—by making the property inaccessible from land.”

Under the law, that's called a government taking. Usually such acts breed outrage, but in this case, it hasn’t raised a stir. Still, it could prove very pricey to taxpayers.

Needless to say, this rather blatant act led to a lawsuit, and the City desperately tried to defend itself all the way through the Ohio Supreme Court, losing every step of the way (not one judge ever sided with the City's arguments). And last year, in a unanimous opinion, the Court ordered the City to begin proceedings to pay, with taxpayer dollars, the value of which they deprived Queensgate Terminals through this “taking”. The process of valuing the cost has not yet occurred (which is a good thing for taxpayers), but could be well into the millions.

You can read the cases yourself (Supreme Court case, Appellate Court case, Appellate Court case II) to see just how strongly each and every city argument was rejected. A few snippets will give a taste of it:

When a party [city] relies on a dissent, but the majority decision is binding on us, its argument is looking bleak.”

The city’s argument “shows that lawyers who have an incentive to do so can read any case to say anything.”

“Again, the city cites an inapposite case for a goofy proposition.”

Bottom line: Government can not simply cut off access to private property. And if it does, it has to pay the cost. So in this case, in stopping a project that has an enormous economic impact for our region, the City and its taxpayers are now on the hook for potentially millions of dollars because its actions were such an abuse of government power.

But that’s not all. There’s another unseemly step the City took. At about the time this case was at the Supreme Court, the City apparently reached a settlement with Queensgate Terminals. The agreement was that the City would purchase the land themselves from the original owner, then lease it to Queensgate Terminals to build and operate the port.

But once they acquired the land—the City refused to follow through on leasing it as they had agreed to! I needn’t tell you that violating an agreement in such a way opens the City up to even more liability—in addition to now shouldering the costs of maintaining the property they own, plus the cost of the "taking".

So today, this potentially enormous project sits motionless. The City owns it, and won’t lease it as it agreed to do in a legal settlement. And the only reason it hasn’t moved forward previously has nothing to do with money or zoning. Rather, it’s because the City egregiously violated the rights of the owners by inappropriately and arbitrarily cutting off all access of the property to public rights of way.

Rather than generating millions of dollars, many new jobs and new community investments if and when the project moves forward, the City’s actions are likely to cost taxpayers millions.

Queensgate: An Opportunity Too Big To Pass Up

Earlier this week, a small story ran in the Enquirer about an issue I believe has huge economic implications, regionally and long-term.

Unfortunately, it has only been treated as a local neighborhood issue, when I believe it instead represents a unifying and ENORMOUS economic opportunity for the City, County, region and southern Ohio. It's an issue all citizens should know about, and all citizens should weigh in on. And the time to weigh in is now.

I wrote about the general issue of freight infrastructure several weeks back. Simply stated, improving our ability to ship goods by river and rail in and out of our region is one of the keys to competing effectively in the 21st century. Jobs and businesses will be located in places that have easy and low cost global access. And using rail and river provides a far cheaper, far greener approach than trucks on roads.

And, because we happen to be 1) located on a river that doesn't freeze, 2) tied to a number of rail lines, and 3) within 450-500 miles of half of the country's manufacturing and population, our region is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the rapidly growing demand for rail and river transportation options--particularly as the coastal ports are already at or above capacity, and busiensses want to be able to ship products across the world.

The Queensgate Port Opportunity

This means we need to do all we can to develop intermodal, river-rail connections where they make sense. For a region which is ideally positioned to take advantage of this 21st century opportunity, we are woefully underserved when it comes to such connections, and failing to take advantage of a great strategic strength.

But we have an opportunity to change that.

It is a project called Queensgate Terminals—an old barge and mooring site that recently housed cement mixing operations. As its name suggests, the site is located along the Queensgate bank of the river in an area that is already intensely industrial/warehouse.

Several years ago, a private entity (Queensgate Terminals) leased the site, with a plan to develop this location into a compact and modern port terminal operation. Once developed, the terminal will connect to a rail line that takes goods directly to a large distribution center in Fayette County, near Wilmington, Ohio. So goods would be shipped from all over the world, up the Ohio River (via the Port of New Orleans), to the Cincinnati port, hoisted onto a railcar at Queensgate, then transported over rail to the Fayette County distribution center, and then shipped across the entire midwest and heartland of the country. And goods could be shipped out to the world from the Midwest via the same route.

And all along the way, jobs would be created. Jobs at the port. Jobs on the rail line. And many jobs at the distribution center (Wilmington, needless to say, badly needs those jobs).

But more fundamentally, the jobs will come long-term because this infrastructure will provide the global, green and cost-effective access to the global stream of commerce that all manufacturers are looking for to be competitive. They want to locate in places where such access exists.

Two other benefits:

1) for each container that flows through the port, a local "tariff" will be collected that will be invested back into the local communities nearby--Lower Price Hill, East Price Hill, etc. These revenues will provide for revitalization and other investments that would otherwise never be made in these communities, at this scale, from the City's general fund (which must be divided among 52 neighborhodos).

2) the plan is to develop the port to be "green"--utilizing solar power, accompanied by green/trees, and using modern technology to keep its operations far quieter and less intense in its use of energy than older facilities.

(A good summary of the project and its benefits can be found here.)

Usually, the big question now would be: sounds great--but who's gonna pay for it?

Not us. Seeing this as a 21st century opportunity, the private sector is willing to shoulder much of the risk of this endeavor. And because of the enormous job implications for Southwest Ohio, the state has signaled interest in also supporting the development of this key 21st century infrastructure, using state and federal funds. The City and County don’t have to pay a dime—we only receive new revenues from the increased economic activity.

And of course, the other big question: sounds great, but there's got to be a zoning problem?

Nope. The zoning of the site already allows for barge and train loading and unloading and bulk material storage, handling, and distribution.

Overall, then, this is an enormous win for the City, County, region and state, and the obstacles to moving forward would seem comparatively low.

So what's the problem, if it's not money or zoning?

Stay tuned for part II.

Stimulus Part II: Supporting Public Safety

In addition to receiving a large amount of stimulus dollars for transportation projects and the Banks, County leadership worked hard over the last week to ensure that we also use stimulus dollars to improve public safety.

A story in today's Enquirer touched on what we're doing. A Department of Justice grant allocation will provide about $2.4 million to be split between the County and the City (thanks to the Mayor and Manager, we were able to hammer out an equitable split), and a number of other smaller grants for cities and townships in our County.

This Friday, we finalized our request for the $1.2M. Needless to say, we dedicated the funds to assist with the jailspace problem:

- We will acquire (75) additional electronic monitoring units, as well as hire back three deputies who are needed to oversee the EMU units. Better yet, these will be GPS-based EMUs, which are far more useful, and also help alleviate jail overcrowding. (The older type of EMUs have to be tied to home (land-line) phones--and require days of delay to install a home line so a person can be monitored. Not good.)

Overall, these new EMUs are a tool that give judges additional jailspace by allowing for home detention--some "EMU inmates" would otherwise need to be locked up pending trial, and for other types of inmates and crimes,including probation violations, an EMU can be how they serve a sentence. For more information, go here.

- We will bolster our pretrial service division, which plays a key role in reducing recidivism and pinpointing non-violent offenders who are approriate for treatment/diversion--preserving needed jailspace and ensuring more high-risk offenders are never released.

- We are investing in a real-time, web-based jail information system, so each judge, and the courthouse generally, can monitor the status of who's in jail, the status of each inmate (pretrial or sentenced), etc. This is the type of investment that will greatly improve the management of our corrections system, and should be a great help to judges.

And the best part . . . we are using the money to fund each of these important additions for the next three years.

Once again, our goal is to use stimulus dollars on our priorities.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

CityBeat Recognizes PepTalk -- "Best Transparency"

I was thrilled yesterday to have this blog recognized by City Beat for providing transparent government:

"BEST TRANSPARENCY BY A PUBLIC OFFICIAL: Perhaps inspired by Barack Obama’s incredibly effective use of the Internet during his presidential campaign, Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper launched his own blog in July, called PepTalk ( Pepper’s blogging allows him to expound on the details of decisions by county commissioners in a substantive way that space-constrained media like newspapers make difficult. More interestingly, he doesn’t shy away from criticism like a lot of elected officials on the Web; he lets everyone have their say as long as they don’t delve into personal insults."

The major reason I wanted to start this blog was because the County has so much it can do, and is doing, to move our community forward--but so much of that work is lost behind a few issues that get all the attention. I'm glad CityBeat, at least, thinks that it has helped shed light on so many of other other issues.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Protecting Our Streams

Today we announced public hearings to consider a big step forward on an important issue: cleaning up our streams.

Through the work of the Stormwater Committee (which I used to be a part of until early this year), we are proposing a "Stream Corridor Protection" system that ensures that we have a system in place that minimizes the amount of pollution that enters streams, and then rivers, by "runoff" from rain and stormwater.

Many people don't realize that one of the biggest sources of polluted streams and rivers is all the soil, dirt, chemicals and other pollutants that get picked up by "runoff" from rain and stormwater--particularly as that water flows over parking lots, construction sites, roads and other paved surfaces directly into our streams, along with all sorts of pollutants it has accumulated. The more the runoff, the more polluted our streams and rivers get. The US EPA has a good explanation of this here.

Figuring out ways to slow that runoff, and protect those streams from all that pollution is not just the right thing to do to protect these invaluable natural resources--this has also become an increasing concern of the EPA, which is requiring jurisdictions like our's to do something about it.

So we are. On the Stormwater Committee, we worked hard to create a balance that respected the rights of property owners, but also created a clear set of rules to protect our streams and stream corridors from runoff and pollution. After much debate, we garnered a unanimous vote (mine included) of the Stormwater Committee, and this issue is now before the County Commission for several public hearings before we vote later in April.

For more information on this whole issue, the Stormwater District has a nice brochure here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Letter to Cincinnati, 2109

Today, I had the honor of participating in the burying of a time capsule at the Museum Center to be opened in 100 years. I also submitted a letter in the time capsule to the citizens of our region in 2109. It was a very interesting task, but also a great reminder of how much work we all have to do to ensure that we leave this world and this community better than it was when he inherited it.

For those interested, here's what I wrote . . . (warning -- it's pretty long).

March 29, 2009

Dear Cincinnatians of 2109:

Greetings from 2009. I write this at what is a historic time for our country.

Just two months ago, the nation swore in President Barack Obama, our first African American President. To win that election, he defeated (in the Democratic primary) Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who would have been the country’s first female president. For us, the prospect that the President would either be a woman or an African American made it one of the most momentous elections in our nation’s history. By 2109, I am assuming such outcomes are far less dramatic.

As you read this, I can only hope that we have left you a community and country that is even better and stronger than the one we inherited from our forbears. But as I write this, there are many challenges we must address if we are to succeed.

Economically, we are facing short- and long-term challenges. Short-term, we are experiencing economic difficulties (the deep 2008-2009 recession) that I am confident we will get through if we work hard and learn from our mistakes . But long-term, we are seeing great competition from countries such as India and China, and will have to work hard, and work very smart, to maintain the economic preeminence and high standard of living this country has become accustomed to. You will know better than we if we made the right strategic decisions—to invest in education, technology, infrastructure, transportation, new energy alternatives, worker training and other key priorities—to position ourselves to succeed over the next 100 years.

In recent years, we have also begun to understand the damage many of our past (and current) practices and bad habits have done to our planet. Most citizens are greatly concerned about a trend in recent years of “global warming,” and the widespread and damaging effect it might have if it continues, both on human beings and where we live today, as well as the entire planet and its millions of species. We are struggling to come up with widescale solutions and global cooperation to solve these climate challenges. But we know we must.

One of the key solutions is exploring ways we can provide and use energy without so heavily relying on oil from other countries or energy sources that contribute to global warming and pollute our air. Specifically, we are looking to see if we might do a better job using solar power, wind, hydropower, biomass, and other forms of renewable and clean energy to fuel all the activities we have grown accustomed to. We are also looking into all sorts of ways to travel, live, and conduct business that demand less energy, and create less negative impacts on our environment. Indeed, many governments such as Cincinnati and Hamilton County have recently passed mandates to reduce our “carbon footprint” through 2050. These will require great changes in how we do things in 2009.

Hopefully by 2109, these solutions are in full effect. Even better, I can only hope that they were the first generation of all sorts of other solutions we couldn’t even imagine today—solutions that have allowed our country to thrive economically without damaging our environment and climate any further. (And hopefully as you read this, the temperature of Cincinnati generally varies between 25 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with anything over 90 seeming rare and very hot. That’s how it is today, and it’s quite comfortable.)

Another major challenge is the state of relations among the world’s countries, religions and ethnic groups. As there has always been, there remains a lot of tension among nations, cultures and religions—particularly at the extremes. But unlike in the past, more and more nations are developing weapons, or trying to, that could wipe out entire cities and regions at once. The United States and the world have a lot of work to do to address these threats and tensions.

While there are many challenges, in other areas, there is also great excitement and progress being made. Over the last several decades, the world has gotten a lot smaller due to new technologies and networks. Rapid development of the computer, the dawn of the internet, cellphones, instant messaging, social networking webpages (more recently), and other changes in recent decades and years have allowed us to communicate quickly, across our planet, in ways few could have imagined even 20 to 30 years ago. They are also having major consequences on how we used to do things—more people, for instance, are reading books and newspapers on computers and smaller hand-held devices, as opposed to paper versions. As fast as these technologies have developed in the past 10 years, we can only imagine what they will be like in 2109. In fact, most of the change that will take place is well beyond our imagination.

Here in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, our view is that those regions that best position themselves to take advantage of these long-term trends will see great opportunity as communities and for individuals. But that those that do not will likely become the “ghost towns” of the future.

Needless to say, we are doing our best to position ourselves to benefit from these new opportunities. It is a tough global competition these days, and our ability to compete will stem directly from our success in 1) creating a quality of life where people and families want to live (this is only getting more important over time), 2) an infrastructure, technology, private sector, and education system that allows us to most effectively compete in this global economy, and 3) a system of government that can effectively help us tackle all these challenges successfully and efficiently. (And my guess is that our forms of government will be dramatically different by 2109 in order to help us accomplish this).

In closing, my hope is that despite all the changes, even in one hundred years, some great local traditions that have withstood the test of time remain unchanged.

Among them, I trust that Graeter’s ice cream (started in 1870) will have grown into a worldwide chain of the best-tasting ice cream on the planet, still based in Cincinnati, and into its 10th generation of leadership.

I am confident that our largest local company, Procter & Gamble, will be in its 272nd year of business, producing and sending across the world products that we can not even imagine today.

I imagine that the friendly rivalry between Cincinnati’s West Side and East side will continue as it has for generations, and only hope we have discovered new and better ways to get across town by then.

And I fully anticipate that Cincinnati will soon open the 240th season of Cincinnati Reds baseball, and we will continue to proudly hold ourselves out as the birthplace of professional baseball all those years ago. Who knows, maybe the Reds will be taking on Tokyo on Opening Day, 2109.

And on a more serious note, I can only hope that the citizens of 2109, when attending Reds’ baseball games and other public events, still stand and sing our National Anthem, hand over heart, with the same national pride we do now. And that you will do so because in all the years between when I write this and when you read this, through thick and thin, we as a nation have continued to live up to our nation’s founding principles of freedom, equality and opportunity for all.


David Pepper
Hamilton County, Board of County Commissioners

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