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Kenton County Planning Commission recommends approval of conditions for Walburg Monastery project

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

Residents of Villa Hills did not achieve the result many had hoped for at a special meeting of the Kenton County Planning Commission Tuesday evening, but they can’t say their voices weren’t heard.

Sr. Mary Catherine Wenstrup of the Walburg Monastery addresses the Kenton County Planning Commission members at Tuesday’s meeting (photos by Mark Hansel).

For five hours, Commission members listened as residents and stakeholders came forward to weigh in on a proposed development, called Sanctuary, on property owned by the Saint Walburg Monastery of Benedictine Sisters of Covington, Kentucky, Inc.

The Planning Commission recommending approval of a request by the City of Villa Hills for amendments to the list of commercial and public/semi-public uses within the planned unit development (PUD) overlay zone. It also recommended approval of an amendment to off-street parking requirements within the PUD.

The Commission recommended approval of a proposed map amendment to the Villa Hills Zoning Ordinance as well.  It would change 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 the Ashley Commercial Group on behalf of Saint Walburg Monastery.

The Villa Hills City Council will have the final say on whether to approve the recommendations and is expected to vote on them at an upcoming meeting.

The Villa Hills City Council meets regularly on the third Wednesday of each month and a meeting is scheduled tonight, but the recommendations will not be considered at that time.

Residents and stakeholders begin to  file in to Tuesday’s meeting of the Kenton County Planning Commission to discuss the recommendations that would allow a development on land owned by Walburg Monastery to go forward.

The Planning Commission also approved a waiver from requirement of the Kenton County Subdivision Regulations governing street cross-sections, off street parking and driveway and intersection spacing requirements. The waiver would only be applicable if the Villa Hills City Council approves the zoning map amendment.

Sr. Mary Catherine Wenstrup of the Walburg Monastery provided a brief history of the property and explained why a portion was being sold. She said planning for current needs and new opportunities is a regular practice within the community.

“In 2012 we accepted a recommendation from professional consultants who work with religious communities across the United States to sell some of our underused property so that we can fund or identify future retirement needs,” she said. “Doing so will allow us to remain in Villa Hills as a stable and positive monastic presence of prayer and service.”

For four years, Walburg Monastery leadership has worked with elected officials, a task force and members of the community through public meetings and workshops to identify how best to utilize the parcel that would be sold.

“It’s important for you and for the public to understand that we still own the land and that the sale is contingent on the proposed development (going forward),” Wenstrup said. “We support the proposed site development, because it is the result of professional studies. These studies, shared with the citizens at two public meetings in 2016 and 2017, detail facts and projections based on the current and future needs of Villa Hills.”

Fort Mitchell attorney Todd McMurtry spoke on behalf of the grassroots group, Defend Villa Hills, which is opposed to the development plan for a parcel currently owned by the Walburg Monastery.

Villa Hills Mayor Butch Callery, who is prohibited by Kentucky Revised Statutes from voting on the issue when it come before the City Council, spoke in support of the plan.

“The Benedictine Sisters have been positive contributors to the city for all these years,” Callery said. “They could have just sold that, no questions asked (and) I believe at this point, we need to support the Sisters. This is a good project and they have worked very hard to help the city.”

An estimated 220 people attended the meeting at the Lakeside Christian Church on Buttermilk Pike in Lakeside Park. About 70 of those in attendance signed up to speak and while a few deferred because their concerns had been addressed by others at the meeting, the Planning Commission accommodated everyone who asked to be heard.

Most of those who spoke were opposed to the project, or at least elements of it, including a multi-family dwelling that would include as many as 199 apartment units/flats.

The frustration expressed by many who spoke in opposition to the development is that they believe the project was not fully explained to them. Most said they were unaware of the large multi-unit building until the master plan was submitted by the developer in December.

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 unit are expected to sell for anywhere from $200,000 to $1.2 million. The flats/apartments are projected to lease for at least $1,300 per month.

The master plan also identifies mixed use units, which would consist of neighborhood office units and local shops, such as cafes and eateries, projected at 1,200 to 5,000 square feet per tenant. The plan also calls for 20 percent of the project to be developed as greenspace, such as parks, plazas and walking trails.

Villa Hills is a city of about 7,500 people described by many who live there as a bedroom community and the majority of those in attendance would like it to remain that way.

“Villa Hills is not an urban city,” said Dave Johnson, who lives on Amsterdam Road. “We don’t want any more commercial development.”

The primary concern expressed about the multi-family unit is that people who lease apartments are not long-term residents and may not have the same level of commitment to the city as homeowners, who have made a significant investment in the community.

Todd McMurtry, a Fort Mitchell attorney representing Defend Villa Hills, a grassroots group of residents, said at first glance, it appears planners have done everything right, but that is not the case.

Kenton County Planning Commission members listened to five hours of input from residents and stakeholders before recommending approval of conditions that would allow development of a parcel on property owned by the Walburg Monastery in Villa Hills. While there was significant opposition to the project, planning commission members determined the amendments requested met the criteria necessary to recommend approval.

“We thing that there is one critical issue, that addresses this and that is the traffic impact study…that did not come out until December 2017,” McMurtry said. “So, all of the approval, all of the affirmation, all of the goodwill, described by the proponents of this project did not take into consideration, the impact that traffic is going to have on the city of Villa Hills. It will be traffic impact and financial impact.”

McMurtry, who is also the city attorney for Fort Wright and for Park Hills, said the project introduces commercial development where it is not needed and dramatically increases the population with no real benefit to the city or it residents.

“There is nothing that the city gains other than a lot of additional traffic and a lot of additional expense,” McMurtry said.

There is also a difference of opinion on when the necessary road improvements would need to begin and how they will be funded.

The primary road improvements would take place on Collins Road and Amsterdam Road, which are state-owned.

McMurtry said the traffic impact study conducted by Bayer Becker is flawed because it indicates the road improvements are expected to be funded by the state by 2022.

“I think for this commission to assume that it’s going to happen is a mistake,” McMurtry said. “We know the fiscal crisis currently in play in Kentucky. All you have to do is drive around Northern Kentucky and see how dramatic the need for state funding for our infrastructure is.”

McMurtry said the cost for the road improvements is estimated at $10.5 million and it would be irresponsible for the Planning Commission to recommend approval until a funding source has been identified.

“There is nothing today, whatsoever to say that the state is going to fund this construction,” McMurtry said. “The traffic study does not say what would happen if the improvements are not made.”

Board Chair Paul Darpel thanked those who spoke for their input and said while there were some valid concerns expressed, the Planning Commission is limited in what it can consider in approving the requests before it.

The text amendment, for example, must be reasonable and not have an adverse effect on the health, safety and welfare, and not be injurious, to the public and the Commission felt that condition was met.

The Planning Commission is required to determine whether the map amendment is in compliance with the City’s adopted plan. It must also consider whether there are major changes to economic factors that would not have been anticipated at the adoption of the plan that substantially alter the basic character of the area.

The City conducted a Villa Hills Area study as part of the Kenton County Direction 2030 plan in early 2016, which was done with the Walburg Monastery property in mind.

The city solicited input from residents, and the community expressed the need for a variety of housing options, including single- and multi-family units up to four stories. 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.

The community engagement process also determined a desire for a mix of uses on a neighborhood scale.

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

As a result, the Planning Commission determined that the map amendment to the Villa Hills Zoning Ordinance met the requirements needed to recommend approval.

The Planning Commission recommendations will be sent to the City of Villa Hills and the Council is expected to consider the requests at it scheduled meeting in February, unless a special meeting is called at an earlier date.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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  1. Nathan Lange says:

    Silly people! Will you ever learn that these meetings are merely a formality? Decisions are made well in advance of public input meetings. Save your breath and stay home. Knit some socks, binge watch Netflix, wash the dog. Any number of things would be more productive than attending a public meeting.

  2. Todd McMurtry says:

    The net economic benefit of the project will be negative when you figure in all of the costs, including the roads and new City building necessary to address the population increase. Only the property owner and developer will gain.

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