A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Villa Hills vote allows St. Walburg Monastery project, including apartment building, to move forward

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By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

In a 4-2 vote, the Villa Hills City Council Tuesday approved Kenton County Planning Commission recommendations for a zone change that will allow the St. Walburg Monastery project to move forward.

A large and vocal crowd filled the River Ridge Elementary School cafeteria Monday for a Villa Hills City Council vote on a controversial zone change that would allow development at a site on the St. Walburg Monastery property to move forward. The City Council voted 4-2 in favor of the zone change (photos by Mark Hansel).

In a sometimes contentious discussion before a packed house at the River Ridge Elementary School cafeteria, council members stated positions that drew either cheer or jeers from those in attendance.

The Kenton County Planning Commission, as the planning agent for the City of Villa Hills, reviewed the requested amendment in January and recommended approval by a vote of 17-1, with one abstention.

The approval by the City Council changes the 86-acre development area from INST (an institutional zone) to R-1EE (PUD), which is a single-family residential zone with a planned unit development overlay. The request was made by developer the Ashley Commercial Group on behalf of St. Walburg Monastery.

Villa Hills City Attorney Mary Ann Stewart began the meeting by explaining what evidence the council could consider and the circumstances that would legally allow it to override the Planning Commission recommendation.

The evidentiary hearing was conducted by the Planning Commission in January, which forwarded its recommendations and conclusions to the Villa Hills City Council.

Councilman Scott Ringo (left) and City Attorney Mary Ann Stewart engaged in a spirited discussion over the options available to the council, when considering a vote on a zone change that would allow the St. Walburg Monastery project to move forward. Ringo voted against the zone change, Councilman Greg Kilburn (center) voted in favor of it.

Under Kentucky law, a majority of the council had to vote to override those recommendations to prevent the zone change. If the council had voted to override the recommendations, it would have had to identify findings of fact that were independent from those of the Planning Commission and based upon substantial evidence found in the administrative record.

“Substantial evidence is not a high bar,” Stewart said. “It is evidence which is sufficient to support a finding that reasonable people (could) rely upon.”

What might have been considered substantial evidence, but was not part of the administrative record, was a petition in opposition to the project that was signed by 2,000 of the approximately 7,500 Villa Hills residents. It was presented at a February 21, City Council public meeting, after the Planning Commission had already made its recommendation.

While there was no public comment taken at the meeting, that revelation prompted the first of what would be many vocal outbursts from the overflow crowd in attendance.

Stewart said a precedent addressing the issue was set in a decision by the Campbell County Fiscal Court several years ago.

“The planning commission held its hearing and it then went to the Fiscal Court to approve or to deny,” Stewart said. “A neighborhood group that was opposed to the development, submitted a petition of names to the Fiscal Court, which then relied upon that position to override. In that case, the court of appeals held that…it had been received outside of the evidentiary hearing.”

In 2012, the Benedictine Sisters of the St. Walburg Monastery, acting on the advice of a consultant, initiated the process of selling some underused property to fund its retirement needs.

The Benedictine Sisters worked with the City of Villa Hills, elected officials, a task force and members of the community to identify how best to utilize the parcel that would be sold.

Villa Hills Mayor Butch Callery (left), who was prohibited from voting on the zone change, said the St. Walburg Monastery project will be good for the city. City administrator Craig Bohman is at right

Early in 2016, the City conducted a Villa Hills Area Study as part of the Kenton County Direction 2030 plan. The St. Walburg Monastery property was the focus of the study.

The findings of the Villa Hills Area Study were incorporated into the City’s Comprehensive Plan in March of last year.

The Sanctuary Master Plan calls for 191 detached single-family resident units, 63 attached single-family townhomes and cottages, in addition to the apartment units, for a total of 453 residential units, which could be expanded to 493 total units.

The four-story apartment building is the sticking point for many residents, who don’t want the structure in what is described by most as a bedroom community. Those opposed to the development say they were not aware of the large structure until plans for the project were submitted by the developer in December.

Residents and community members, however, expressed the need for a variety of housing options, including single- and multi-family units up to four stories, in the engagement process prior to the approval of the Master Plan. The density of the area was determined to be up to 750 units, which is fewer than the 493 that would be the maximum allowed for this project.

Council members Scott Ringo and George Bruns voted against the recommendation of the Kenton County Planning Commission.

Ringo said, contrary to the findings identified in the Master Plan, in discussions with prominent residents and others in the city, he determined that 90 percent of people who live in Villa Hills are opposed to the project in its current form. He added that in a city of about 4,000 voters, half felt strongly enough to sign a petition opposing the project.

“PDS heard it, a majority of the people were against it, they voted in favor of it, now you’ve brought it before us and I feel like the only decision I’m being asked to make is ‘yes,’” Ringo said.

Bruns said he believes anyone interested in selling an asset would want “the best bang for the buck,” and he understands that.

“I absolutely respect the sisters for what they are doing,” Bruns said. “However, I have a problem with this whole process. I don’t feel like this process is doing the city of Villa Hills justice.”

Bruns emphasized that he doesn’t believe anything improper was done by any of the parties to the process, but he believes the apartment building is not consistent with neighborhood scale or traditional design.

“I’ve been trying to find, in any neighborhood, in Villa Hills, where there would be another building of that size,” Bruns said. “I would really rather not see this size of a building in our city. I just worry about what the potential is for that to become something other than what it was originally built to be.”

Councilman Gregory Kilburn was the most vocal of those who voted in favor of the project.

A sign notifying residents of Tuesday’s council vote is displayed at the corner of Collins Road and Amsterdam Road. “Threatening Villa Hills” signs, which have shown up on lawns throughout the city for weeks, can also be seen in the background.

He explained that as an elected official, he took an oath to follow the laws of the Commonwealth, a comment that was met with jeers from those in attendance.

“I would ask only for the right to say my piece, if you don’t like it, you’ll get your chance in November, and I’m sure you’ll use it,” Kilburn said.

Villa Hills residents will vote in a new city council in the November General Election. Many who have expressed opposition to the project have indicated they will vote against incumbents who support the zone change.

Kilburn said an examination of the record indicates that a vote to override the Planning Commission recommendation, without substantial evidence, could subject the City to a costly legal battle.

“The sanctions in the Commonwealth of Kentucky require that any amendment, in order to be granted, has to be in agreement with the Comprehensive Plan,” Kilburn said. “One of the findings and conclusions of the planning commission…was that this development was in agreement with the comprehensive plan. I don’t have the luxury of thumbing my nose at the KRS.  ”

The Planning Commission also determined that the current zoning at the site is inappropriate, Kilburn said.

“We’re at the conclusion of a process that the Sisters initiated a little over three years ago now,” Kilburn said.  “The Sisters were not required to work with us at all.”

The Benedictine Sisters still own the property and, with its institutional designation, could have sold it to a developer that would have been free to build anything that fit that zoning, without council approval.

“When they were approached by an institutional buyer that made them a good faith offer, they simply said, ‘no, we’re going to work with the City,’” Kilburn said. “Sisters, I thank you for this opportunity and I apologize for the abuse that has been heaped upon you, publicly and privately. Based upon the administrative record that we have before us and in order to safeguard the legal position of our city, I will be voting in favor of this proposal and I would urge all of my fellow council member to do likewise.”

Council members Mary Koenig, Jennifer Vaden and Gary Waugaman also voted in favor of the zone change.

Mayor Butch Callery was prohibited by statute from voting on the amendments, but he has strongly supported the project.

“We went through a lot of public meetings, got a lot of input from the citizens and I know it got contentious here at the end, but the council was in favor of the development, some just didn’t want the apartments,” Callery said. “I think it’s going to be great for the city of Villa Hills over the next several years. We’ll have a lot of additional housing – we know there’s a lot of people that want step-down housing and young people that want to move into the area and that will accommodate all of them.”

Despite the opposition to the amendments that will allow the project to go forward, Kentucky Revised Statutes indicate that the time to halt the project passed long before Tuesday’s vote.

Residents could have been more vocal in opposition to the project in 2016, when the Villa Hills Area Study was conducted, or during the engagement process prior to the adoption of the study into the comprehensive plan a year ago.

Many say they weren’t aware of the ramifications associated with adoption of the study, or the possibility that the project would include an apartment building, until plans were revealed in December.

Those claims may be accurate, but because the amendments are consistent with all prevailing regulations, Tuesday’s vote allowed the City to avoid a potential costly legal battle that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to win.

Not to mention the embarrassment of potentially being engaged in litigation against an order of Benedictine Sisters that have, by all accounts, been great community partners, working to ensure a comfortable retirement.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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  1. tim sogar says:

    If anyone remembers, years ago cities were subjected to the possibility of having sexual paraphanalia stores in their cities. Would Council have voted to allow them if the PDA had recommended approval because of possible litigation from the developer / owners possibly violation of federal / state regulations ?

    There are times when elected officials MUST STAND UP & do what voters / residents / communities want and not be driven by fear of lawsuits as four of City Council was. Council is not the community – voters & residents are the community!!

  2. Sr. Nancy Kordenbrock says:

    This is the most accurate report on the meeting and the process. While misinformation has been presented rerpeatedly by the opponents, this gives the facts. Thank goodness.

  3. Rich McDonough says:

    This entire process was one of the most open, transparent processes I have ever experienced in northern Kentucky politics. I applaud those members of council who voted in favor of the development. It is apparent that a group of people in our community have little or no understanding of the laws and regulations of the Commonwealth. Had they been interested in this development, they would have expressed their opinions in 2016…two years ago. To have waited until the very last minute to express their displeasure, and then blame council, is erroneous. I, too, plan to vote in November and I can assure you it will be for those who supported the development.

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