$190 million Land of Illusion expansion will not move forward

Plan doesn’t match the township’s land use plan and would have a negative impact on neighbors, commissioners say.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the district court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Land of Illusion owner Brett Oakley, so the $190 million expansion issue appears to be over.

Butler County commissioners heard the Madison Twp. zoning case in late 2020 and denied rezoning 206 acres across eight parcels off Thomas Road to a Business Planned Unit Development from the current agriculture, residential and general business classifications.

Oakley wanted to make Land of Illusion a year-round facility with additional family activities, camping sites and a hotel. He said the multi-phased project would be a $190 million investment in the county’s economy.

Oakley sued the commissioners, Madison Twp. and others in federal court, claiming the action trampled on his property rights. He lost the first round, and appealed.

The 6th Circuit Court ruled on Friday the county commissioners were within their rights to nix the expansion.

“Even if plaintiffs have a protectible property interest, they still cannot prevail on their procedural or substantive due process claims,” the court wrote. “Plaintiffs argue that Defendants’ denial of the preliminary B-PUD application was arbitrary and capricious. This is not supported by the limited record.”

The Butler County Planning Commission and the county Rural Zoning Commission denied the rezoning request. Neighbors opposed the expansion, citing concerns over noise, traffic and other problems associated with a development of this size and Oakley himself.

Neither Oakley nor his attorney could be reached for comment on the court’s ruling and what, if anything, he plans to do next. Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser told the Journal-News, “in my opinion they came to the right decision, it was based on facts, not emotion and certainly not illusion.”

“They’re done, as far as I’m concerned they’re done,’ Gmoser said. “But who knows what is in the enterprising minds of lawyers. But as far as I’m concerned that case is over.”

The county’s planning administrator Zeb Acuff told the Journal-News Oakley hasn’t submitted any new plans for the property.

When they denied the rezoning request, county commissioners Cindy Carpenter and T.C. Rogers said the plan doesn’t match the township’s land use plan and would have a negative impact on neighbors.

“The high density commercial, recreational uses proposed in the preliminary development plan are likely to adversely impact the existing land uses and have detrimental effects on the surrounding rural and residential developments,” Rogers said. “Particularly with respect to the development’s density and intensity.”

In the lawsuit, Oakley claimed he withdrew his original plans to address concerns of county planning staff and residents, such as removing the amusement park, creating a greater greenspace buffer, reducing the maximum height of structures and the amount of parking.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott ruled: “Plaintiffs did not have a legitimate claim to entitlement of approval of their preliminary BPUD application. Accordingly, Plaintiffs have failed to allege that they have a protected property interest.”

Oakley also accused county officials of treating him differently than other developers and said they showed “ill will and animus” against him. Dlott said there are no facts in evidence to prove that claim.

“Plaintiffs also have not pleaded facts suggesting that defendants made statements that indicated hostility towards plaintiff Oakley or towards his associated businesses. Instead, plaintiffs make the circular argument that defendants must have had animus against him because they denied the preliminary BPUD application, and that they denied the preliminary BPUD application because they had animus against him,” she wrote. “Plaintiffs’ argument also is undercut by their factual allegations that defendants approved for plaintiffs a specific zoning change in 2005 and ‘a number of variances and conditional-use permits’ between 2005 and 2020.”

Oakley appealed the decision to the 6th Circuit last August, raising three issues. He asked the court to decide if his substantive and due process rights were violated, whether he has an equal protection claim and “whether public policy considerations warrant ‘a more flexible application of local zoning regulations.”

The court said the public policy question wasn’t for them to decide and agreed with Dlott that county officials did not demonstrate animus or ill will toward Oakley.

The township was dismissed from the lawsuit early because they have no zoning control. Madison Twp. Trustee Brian McGuire said he is happy for the residents who live near the attraction.

“There’s residents living around the Land of Illusion that will probably be happy to see this,” McGuire said. “I’m glad we’ll be able to move on.”

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