Outlet-mall developers have been coming out of the woodwork in the last year in central Ohio, with two proposing plans to transform farmland into retail just off Interstate 71's Sunbury-Delaware exit.
Come Nov. 5, whether either of those plans come to fruition could be up to Berkshire Township voters.
On July 8, a group of residents presented Berkshire Township trustees with a referendum petition to overturn the rezoning of 208 acres off the U.S. Route 36-state Route 37 interchange, where Simon Property Group and Tanger Outlets plan to build a 400,000-square-foot outlet mall.
"I am opposed to an outlet mall because I don't think it fits the rural nature of what we have," said Rick Bowman, one of six people who collected more than 300 signatures for the petition that will be sent to the Delaware County Board of Elections for verification.
At least 104 of the signatures must be valid for the referendum to be placed on the ballot.
"We know growth is coming, because the other three corners of that area are already rezoned, but I think there are better uses for the property," Bowman said. "But if we had to do an outlet mall, it would be the traffic situation I'm most concerned with."
In the last two years, private developers and the Ohio Department of Transportation have conducted studies on the two-lane exit ramps from I-71 onto Routes 36-37 to determine how they would need to evolve to handle as many as 10,000 extra vehicles per day if the area were developed.
According to the ODOT website, the congested interchange operates at a capacity of more than 30,000 cars per day and was considered "deficient" by a 2009 feasibility study.
No plans to expand the roadway or reconfigure the interchange have been submitted by the outlet mall's developers, but Tanger Outlets spokesman Quentin Pell said that doesn't mean those issues won't be addressed.
"We have a strong history of expertise in managing these issues," Pell wrote in an email. "Our continued discussions will help to ensure the development plan addresses development standards, pedestrian convenience and appropriate traffic flow."
Tanger/Simon is facilitating the Berkshire Township Citizens Advisory Group to be a part of those discussions.
A press release announcing the group said it will " ... consult with the township and county officials on road improvements, walking trails, appearance and additional development details" and that "Tanger and Simon will incorporate these recommendations to ensure responsible development of all four quadrants of the I-71 and 36/37 interchange."
The group's first public meeting is planned for 7 p.m. July 23 at Berkshire Township Hall, 1454 Rome Corners Road.
Its chairman, Alan Gilbert, operates "The Meaningless Beanfield" Facebook page, which has served as a source of information and a place for residents and township leaders to voice their opinions on the development off Routes 36/37.
He wrote July 8 on the page that he is opposed to the referendum.
"I believe the referendum is a fool's errand and will do more harm than good," Gilbert wrote. "If it succeeds, we will still end up with significant development, probably still an outlet mall, but less optimized and with less township/resident control. At this point, and having learned more about the entire situation, I think we are better off working with the developers to make sure the residents' and township's interests are taken into account.
Bowman said some residents were hesitant to sign the petition because of fear that if the township is uncooperative with Tanger/Simon, it will ask another municipality to annex the land so it can move forward with the development, or it will scrap the project altogether, leaving the possibility that other developers could make a move.
Also in the running for outlet space in Berkshire Township is California-based Craig Realty and local developer Pat Shively, who announced plans for a mixed-use project just south of the 36/37 interchange. The plans were announced in December for the 350,000-square-foot NorthGate Center development, expected to go before township trustees later this month.
In January, Glimcher Realty Trust approached the Madison County building and zoning department to inquire about farmland just north of Interstate 70 near London that could be optimal for an outlet mall.
The only other possible central Ohio outlet-mall site that has received rezoning approval is one that could be developed by Horizon Group Properties on land owned by the New Albany Co.
In February, the New Albany Co. received approval from New Albany City Council to rezone 108 acres off Smith's Mill and Beech roads for commercial and retail uses, although no formal plans have been filed with the city for an outlet mall.
Horizon Properties led the preliminary referendum meetings that kicked off in Berkshire Township in May and, according to Gilbert, who was present at those meetings, the developers agreed to pay Columbus attorney Donald McTigue to assist during the referendum process.
Lisa Griffin, who works for Horizon Properties, joined five township residents last weekend to collect signatures on the referendum petition.
Bowman said he understands Horizon Properties has its own interest in seeing the Simon/ Tanger outlet quashed, but he has other motives.
"I'm not doing this for me or for the girl on the other side," he said. "It should be the choice of the people of Berkshire Township if they want an outlet mall; that's all this is. If everybody in the township votes and says they want an outlet mall, then I did my job, because they got to decide."