Warren County nature preserve expansion shelved for upscale treatment-center plan

A Warren County zoning board met last week to decide whether to permit a 120-acre former children’s camp property along the banks of the Little Miami River to be redeveloped as an upscale, in-patient drug-treatment facility.

The former Kings Domain camp was to become part of the Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve until the owner of the property — purchased after the camp’s bankruptcy — declined to join efforts to buy it to enlarge the Fort Ancient footprint.

Acquisition of the former camp site also was to strengthen the state’s bid to get Fort Ancient and other Ohio parks featuring Native American culture added to the United Nations’ list of World Heritage Sites.

Last September, the Warren County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution supporting the Ohio History Connection’s application for a state grant to help pay for at least part of the former camp property to be added to Fort Ancient’s 764-acre site, across Ohio 350 from the former camp land.

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“We did not submit an application for the state grant that you reference because the property owner didn’t want to move forward as a grant partner. Since this property is privately owned, we are limited in our ability to make decisions on the land,” Emmy Beach, an assistant director of the Ohio History Connection said in response to questions about the status of the Fort Ancient expansion plan.

“We’re aware of the treatment center’s interest in this property. What’s most important to us is the preservation, protection and continued conservation of Fort Ancient and the historic viewshed of the site,” Beach added.

Last week, property owner Steve Cesler said he would discuss his decision to back the treatment center, which faced opposition from residents and the Salvation Army camp, which owns a neighboring camp, youths and residents, after the zoning board “makes their decision.”

Cesler, who had been on the Kings Domain Camp board, purchased the property through a limited liability corporation for $1.2 million at sheriff’s sale in September 2018.

On May 12, Cesler was the last witness called by the lawyer representing the Cedar Oaks Wellness Center proposal during the Warren County Board of Zoning Appeals public hearing on the proposal. More than 70 people attended the 4 1/2 hour hearing, most via teleconference.

The Warren County Regional Planning Commission recommended conditional approval.

Zoning Inspector Michelle Tegtmeier said the project qualified for the special-use permit.

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Lawyer Ben Yoder called partners in the project and hired consultants to explain why the center, offering a range of in-patient treatments for drug, alcohol and tobacco addictions to up to 90 people when completed, should be approved.

Some camp structures would be used, with new buildings to be constructed on the ridge-top area of the property.

The presentation referred to a recent study calling for additional treatment options in Warren County. Patients would be voluntary admissions, rather than court-ordered cases, and could come from all over the U.S., according to CEO Ted Paarlberg.

“It is very positive that this property is going to be so used,” said Steve Tufts, pastor of the nearby Silver Grove Baptist Church. “I could not imagine a better usage.”

Traffic and noise would be less than when it was gpt a children’s camp, according to the Cedar Oaks presentation.

The land is zoned for use as residences with 5 acres or more. The county plan calls the land’s use as a park, for recreation or as open space. Much of the land would remain as open space under the Cedar Oaks plan and expansion would require another county review.

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In opposition, Lawyer Bill Duning called two members of the regional advisory board for Salvation Army Camp Swoneky, another neighbor of the former Kings Domain.

They said Cedar Oaks should be built elsewhere and expressed concern Cedar Oaks patients could come into contact with under-privileged youths at Camp Swoneky.

“They come to camp to get away from these kind of disturbances,” said Michael Vandelkamp, an architect and member of the Salvation Army’s regional advisory board.

Duning urged the board to deny the special use and presented a list of conditions under which it could be approved, including a fenced berm around the entire 4,054 feet in which the two properties share a property line and prohibition of sex offenders or court-ordered participants.

Duning claimed state law barred the location of a center providing medically assisted treatment so close to the children’s camp.

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Residents raised questions about proximity to addicts, safety, property values, traffic and the effect on the rural character of the area.

“Treat our community with a little respect. Put this somewhere else,” said Amber Kirby, who lives nearby.

Yoder said Duning was wrong about state regulations for medically assisted treatment locations. He called comments by residents like Kirby “red herrings” because they lived too far from the development site to have standing under the law.

“We’re five months into this,” Yoder said during the May 12 hearing, urging quick approval by the zoning board. “To agree to their conditions is tantamount to a denial.”

The board adjourned the hearing and deliberated in private on Tuesday. A decision is to be announced on June 10.

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