The Jerome Township Trustees agenda for Tuesday, Jan. 17, looked pretty routine - at first glance:

The Jerome Township Trustees agenda for Tuesday, Jan. 17, looked pretty routine - at first glance:

Approval of the agenda. Approval of the minutes. Department reports. Consideration for a stone monument for the "Potter's Field" at the cemetery.

The usual.

But things are far from usual in Jerome Township as trustees attempt the first complete rewrite of the zoning code since 1972.

Item 9 on the agenda was "Public Participation," which turned a brief and tranquil meeting into nearly two hours of heated discussion.

"I would like to talk about the hellish environment you all have created for the businesses on Industrial Parkway," said Mark Wehinger, owner of Environmental Management Inc.

Wehinger said he thought the township is alienating the business community and is in danger of losing its support.

At issue: Jerome Township Trustees and the Zoning Commission would like to entice high-tech businesses to Industrial Parkway. They also would like to bring existing businesses up to code now, in anticipation of the new zoning rules.

In November, zoning administrator Kathleen Crowley sent notices of violations to 13 township businesses. Eight have appealed the citations and a settlement is in the works. Crowley petitioned the trustees and received $5,000 at the meeting to pay a lawyer to draw up the terms of the settlement.

"I wanted to put up a 20,000-square-foot building so that I could store indoors what's now being stored outside," Wehinger said. "But I was told by Miss Crowley, 'We don't want people like you here.' Quote un-quote."

Crowley denied saying that

"I have a multi-million-dollar business," Wehinger said. "I employ 350 people. We're in the Top 10 in Union County. Why would I invest in my business in Jerome Township when you don't want people like me?"

Trustee Ron Rhodes has offered to mediate between the businesses, the zoning commission and the trustees in the past.

"It concerns me to hear that you were told, 'We don't want people like you here,' Rhodes said. "Because I for one do want your business here."

Wehinger was skeptical of the zoning commission and trustees' long-term vision.

"You can dream all you want about creating some sort of high tech corridor," Wehinger said. "But we are already here."

For decades, the zoning code of Jerome Township has been loosely and irregularly enforced. Often times a business would enter a building claiming one sort of operation, only to change to a use that wasn't allowed for in the code.

"We're trying to bring everyone into compliance," said trustee Bob Merkle. "When we first looked at rewriting the code we asked if we could grandfather the existing businesses. But we were told we're not allowed to write one set of rules for one group and then another set of rules for everybody else."

Merkle was confident that "we'll work through this."

Crowley said she met on three different occasions with Wehinger's business partner to discuss the proposed 20,000-square-foot warehouse.

"Let's follow your logic," she said. "Why would I meet with him three times if I didn't want you here?" I told your partner that if you filed for a PUD (planned unit development) you would be able to write the zoning to suit to your needs. A PUD would have provided you with great flexibility."

Wehinger was skeptical.

"I look at the over all business environment and I didn't do a PUD for one simple reason," he said. "I feel I could put zoning plans in front of you until I'm blue in the face and you still wouldn't approve. I think saying otherwise is a bold-faced lie."

Merkle assured him the trustees do want to attract businesses to Jerome.

"We need businesses in Jerome and we need their employees," he said. "This isn't an anti-business campaign. A lot of the complaints we receive as trustees come from businesses about other businesses. I have received more than one complaint from a businessman who didn't like what his neighboring business was doing. Clearly, what's good for one business might not be good for another."

Don Rife Jr. is the general manager of Rife's Autobody, which has locations in Westerville and Grandview.

"I feel a little foolish coming before you tonight," he told the trustees. "Because I'd like to open a new business in Jerome and after what I've heard at tonight's meeting I'm not sure that's such a good idea."

The commissioners assured Rife that there were autobody shops on Industrial Parkway and that they would welcome Rife to the area.

"This meeting tonight just blows me away," Rife said. "I need to make sure the building I'm going to buy is zoned properly for my use and I can't wait six months to find out."

Merkle told Rife that in many cases "the building owner will get the zoning you need in advance of or as a condition of you purchasing the property."

Bill Westbrook is a land developer retained by several township businesses to serve as a liaison between the business community and township government while the zoning code is rewritten.

"I've said it before, the single most important thing that businesses need to prosper is predictability," he said. "And right now that's the one thing Jerome doesn't provide."