A referendum that could overturn the zoning of a proposed outlet mall off Interstate 71's Sunbury-Delaware exit has pitted Berkshire Township residents against one another.
On Election Day, township voters will be asked to vote "yes" to allow the rezoning of 208 acres off the U.S. Route 36-state Route 37 interchange with I-71, where Simon Property Group and Tanger Outlets plan to build a 400,000-square-foot outlet mall.
A "no" vote on the measure would overturn the zoning that was approved by the township zoning commission in May. Township trustees in June voted 1-1 on the application, upholding the commission’s decision.
Support for both sides has mounted since the referendum was approved in August by the Delaware County Board of Elections.
"The 'no' vote is a fallacy," said Alan Gilbert. "We don't have the ability to say we're not going to have an outlet mall."
Gilbert created a Facebook page called "The Meaningless Beanfield" that, for both sides, has served as a source of information on the outlet mall and the issues surrounding it. He also is a member of the Berkshire Township Citizens Advisory Group that Tanger/Simon created to allow residents to weigh in on development of the mall.
"We believe that one way or another, there is a high likelihood that they're going to build a mall in Berkshire Township; they will find a way," Gilbert said. "If it's inevitable, we want to have a voice in how they develop it."
Those who are promoting a "yes" vote are doing so under the belief that Tanger/Simon could annex into Columbus or Sunbury if the referendum is upheld Nov. 5, Gilbert said. That could mean the mall would be built on the same land, but any taxes and zoning associated with the mall would be in the hands of the annexing municipality.
Based on the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of the Tanger Outlets website that describes the Berkshire project, fears of annexation aren't unfounded.
"There are other options to develop at this interchange, and we will remain committed to building at this location," according to the website. "These other options have not been considered as we are confident a majority of the residents support the rezoning and the benefits of new development. A first option would be to annex to either Sunbury or Columbus."
Tanger Outlets spokesman Quentin Pell said in an email to ThisWeek Delaware News that the developers have not contacted other municipalities about annexation.
Businesses in the area, including A.D. Farrow Harley-Davidson and McDonald's, have shown support for the outlet mall for other reasons. The businesses that have displayed signs reading "Vote Yes for Jobs" hope an outlet mall will equal an increase in customers and allow them to hire additional employees.
Tanger/Simon has said construction on the mall would start in the spring with a projected opening in summer 2015. It has projected the outlet mall would employ about 800 workers.
Rick Bowman said the additional traffic a mall would bring was his reason for leading the petition for the referendum.
"An outlet mall and everything that is going to come with it does not fit our rural character," he said. "It's really going to change our area and it's going to make it difficult if not impossible to get on or off that freeway."
The group that's banded together to promote a "no" vote is being backed by Horizon Group Properties, which in February received rezoning approval for 108 acres off Smith's Mill and Beech roads in New Albany. Although there is speculation that an outlet mall is planned for the land that was rezoned for commercial and retail uses, no formal proposals have been submitted with New Albany.
Bowman said it's "sad" that those in favor of the mall have resorted to what he calls "scare tactics" to encourage "yes" votes.
"There are a lot of people who think they have to vote 'yes' and we have to have a mall because there is the possibility of annexation, and it's a shame," Bowman said.
Longtime township Trustee Bill Holtry hasn't said which side he'll support at the polls, but he has made sure residents know the facts about annexation.
At a recenttrustees meeting, he presented annexation information that showed 2,058 acres has been annexed from Berkshire Township since 1978. That land has been annexed by Sunbury and Galena.
"Since 2000, we've had over 1,100 acres annexed to other properties, so no one can say annexation is a scare tactic, because it's already happened numerous times," Holtry said. "I have no personal take on whether the mall is a good idea or bad idea; I'm just showing facts."
The ballot issue does not bar against a second outlet mall, proposed by NorthGate, which was denied rezoning on the south side of Routes 36-37. In August, Northgate filed a lawsuit against Berkshire Township, its zoning commission and Township Administrator Jeff George to have the zoning decision reversed.