Development is coming to the Sunbury area whether its residents like it or not, so village officials should at least try to guide it.
That’s the message Sunbury Village Council and administration gave to residents Wednesday, July 9, as council members unanimously approved the annexation of 128.2 acres west of the village in Berkshire Township.
Council approved the annexation agreement and petition with an emergency clause, meaning it will take effect immediately.
“I just don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this property ... is owned by people who are of the mind to sell it and develop it, and that’s going to happen whether we’re involved or not,” Sunbury Mayor
Tommy Hatfield said. “Sunbury thinks we should be involved with that.”
The annexation could be the first of many ahead of the proposed NorthGate Centre Development. The development, planned for more than 1,000 acres, could feature car dealerships, hotels, sports fields, stores and warehouses.
The first annexed site is east of South Galena Road, west of Domigan Road and northwest of Cheshire Road.
Simon Property Group and Tanger Outlets also are planning a large development in the area, located north of the NorthGate site and southeast of the intersection of Interstate 71 and U.S. Route 36/state Route 37 in Berkshire Township.
Previously, both the Simon/Tanger and NorthGate developments had been characterized as outlet malls, but Councilman Dave Miller disputed that.
“First of all, there’s not going to be a second outlet mall,” he said. “There’s only one outlet being built, period.”
The village’s website also states: “The village of Sunbury is unaware of a second outlet mall being planned,” in a frequently asked questions page on its website.
While there may be only one outlet mall developed, Miller said both sites almost certainly would see development of some kind, and Sunbury needed to try to guide area development the best it could.
At previous meetings, residents had voiced their opposition to the annexation due to fears that a mixed-use development on the proposed NorthGate site would change the rural character of the village and township.
At the July 9 meeting, multiple opponents of the annexation instead focused their ire on the council’s use of the emergency clause, which they said was being used to prevent a voter referendum on the decision.
“This annexation is not an emergency,” Cheshire Road resident Ellen Milligan said. “We, the people of Sunbury, want an opportunity to vote on a decision which will change our lives in this village. A referendum is what is right for the residents of Sunbury.”
The vote on the annexation seemed destined to be delayed until council’s next meeting after council members Joe Gochenour and Jennifer Witt voted against suspending the third reading. Both expressed concerns that the public had not been given enough information on why the annexation needed to be approved that night and passed with an emergency clause.
After a lengthy discussion between council and the village’s administration, Gochenour and Witt both switched their votes. The pair said they were convinced the residents were given an explanation of why the annexation needed to move forward.
Sunbury Village Solicitor David Brehm said the emergency clause often is used by municipalities ahead of time-sensitive development deals. He said residents need to understand the debated farmland would be ripe for development whether the village annexed it or not.
“I know of lot of you from Cheshire Road understand that field behind you is not going to be a field,” he said. “It’s zoned for houses, it’s zoned for commercial and it’s zoned for apartments.”
Brehm said it would be better for the village and its residents to have a voice in the development, especially regarding roads, sewer and other infrastructure.
“We don’t have a voice until we’re out there,” he said. “We can stand inside the village limits and look out and see what happens, or we can go out and get involved and control what happens – or at least influence what happens.”
Cheshire Road resident Judy Brown said a vote for the annexation would benefit a private developer at the expense of the village’s residents.
“I’m not sure the annexation is about private citizens wanting sewer service or other village amenities,” she said. “It seems to be about a developer wanting a contiguous tract of land to connect to
Sunbury for his own agenda of zoning variances favorable to him but not necessarily all the people of Sunbury.”
Council also heard a first reading of legislation approving another annexation of about 184 acres east of Golf Course Road, south of Big Walnut Middle School. Village officials said the details of the annexation agreement for that property are being finalized.