Two incumbent trustees in Shyra Eichhorn and Mike Gemperline are up for reelection in Liberty Township, while three newcomers — Melanie Farkas, Scott Donaldson and Nico Franano — are hoping it will be their time to lead the township forward.
Farkas, who moved into Liberty Township in 2015, ran unsuccessfully for trustee in 2019. However, despite not winning the election, Farkas said she had “so much gratitude and was really overwhelmed” by the support she was given. The unfavorable results didn’t diminish her desire to have an impact on the community and rather strengthened her resolve to run again this year.
“I still truly believe in transparency for our local government. I think a lot of people are struggling to understand what’s going on with the township because there’s not a lot of communication, and that just breeds mistrust,” Farkas said.
Farkas added she believes there is a concern from residents in the northern part of the township that the current trustees want to make the rural northern portions of the township mirror that of the developed southern areas.
“There are a number of people who have said, ‘I looked at the comprehensive plan for this area before I bought my house. I wanted a couple of acres, I wanted privacy and a rural feel,’” Farkas said. “We have to strike a balance. We can’t just completely disregard the northern part of the township in order to please whoever it is that the trustees are working with.”
Farkas acknowledged that working with developers is “really important” but said that good collaboration and planning will allow the community to “grow in a responsible way that preserves what we love about living here.”
Farkas went on to question the current board’s decision to take the CARES Act dollars it was awarded and set up a loan program through the Delaware County Finance Authority rather than follow the similar path of a grant program its neighbors in the city of Powell established with the money it received.
“It’s just really baffling to me why they would make that choice,” Farkas said. “They could have really provided helpful funds with no need for payback to Liberty Township and Powell business, and they decided not to do that.”
Asked what she believes she can bring to the board, Farkas responded by saying, “I think that transparency is a really huge one … I’m really hoping that along with providing a different perspective and some new ideas, I can help the township do a much better job of being transparent while planning and making decisions, and then communicating that with the residents so they understand and know what is going on. I want them to have the opportunity to reach out and share their comments, positive or negative, about the township.
“We’re really privileged to live in the area that we live, and we have some really incredible residents in many different industries. It would be great to help everyone feel that, no matter their politics, that they can be involved in the decisions.”
Eichhorn has been a mainstay on the Liberty Township Board of Trustees after being elected to her initial term in 2013. Eichhorn said representing the township is a “big responsibility but a huge honor,” and with the township currently working on several projects she’s already been involved with as a trustee, “I want to see them through.”
“I think it’s always been at my forefront to make sure I’m working with the residents and always have the best interest of the community as a whole in mind when making decisions,” Eichhorn told The Gazette.
“We’re at a point right now where we’re financially sound and stable, but yet we need to make sure that we continue to strategically plan so that we don’t have to go back to the residents, just like we haven’t in the past eight years,” she said.
Eichhorn ventured to guess she’s voted on upwards of 2,000 motions or resolutions during her time as a trustee. Asked what accomplishments stick out the most to her during her time on the board, Eichhorn began by saying she will always be very proud of her recent fight to keep the Liberty Township Fire and EMS services from being outsourced.
In addition to the fire and EMS battle, Eichhorn pointed to road improvements that have been made to some of the township’s most dangerous intersections, such as those at Bainbridge Mills and at Old Sawmill Road and Presidential Parkway.
She added, “I think the other thing I am proud of is we have very much looked at creative ways of being able to deliver the quality of services, trails, and the quality of life that people want here without hitting their wallets. We’ve been creative in going after certain grants, making sure we can be the first ones to participate in the bond loan program, making sure that the heads of our different departments stay within budget.”
Asked if she feels there is a disconnect between the trustees and the northern township residents, Eichhorn said any idea of a disconnect likely stems from the controversial POD 18 proposal that was approved by the township in March.
“You have to figure out how you juggle making sure that we’re bringing in some relief for the tax trajectory with making sure that we still have the charm of the community,” Eichhorn said of that vote. “I can only speak for myself as one trustee, but I spent countless hours in people’s kitchens, meeting at coffee shops, I was on a Zoom call for six hours with one couple to make sure I understood all the different concerns … It was very important to me that I took the time to meet with as many people as I could and took the time to make sure that we didn’t take the vote right away. I delayed that vote, I made countless amendments. I had the apartments cut in half … Although I get that there is a group that will never be thrilled with that vote, it goes back to me having to take all the information, analyze it, and make a decision on what is best for the entire community.”
Eichhorn also pointed out that there were property owners within the POD who also had property rights that needed to be honored.
Eichhorn went on to say, “I think at the end, my message has always been that I need to make sure that we keep residents safe, and that we’re very mindful to keep money in their wallets, and that we keep this as a phenomenal place to live.”
Donaldson also ran for trustee in 2019 and called the campaign a “learning opportunity” for his current race. Unsure if he was going to run again this year, Donaldson said he felt “very strongly” about the township’s approval of the POD 18 development.
Following the trustees’ vote in March, Donaldson said he was heavily involved in gathering the petition signatures to request a ballot referendum that would allow the voters to decide the POD’s fate. Donaldson said he was the named representative on the petition that was certified by the Delaware County Board of Elections before an appeal by the developers led to a Ohio Supreme Court ruling that officially ended the referendum.
“The residents there involved feel that the best way to deal with it now that the referendum is gone is to try and vote in two trustees who are more mindful of development and what impact it has, so I felt compelled to run based on that,” Donaldson said.
Donaldson added he is “really puzzled by the decision making of the current board, primarily financially and in terms of transparency.”
With a background in banking and finance, Donaldson said he believes he has the ability to “take a look at things in a different way,” with more of an “entrepreneurial mindset.”
“In addition to that, I served on the Redevelopment Commission in Marion, Indiana, at the behest of the mayor,” he said. “We developed complicated financing deals. We kept GM there, we brought in Dollar General, we helped make sure that Cardinal Ethanol could get a good start … All of that right after the recession when a town of almost 60,000 became 30,000 overnight. Everyone wanted to leave … I think that helps me look at things from a different perspective.”
Donaldson said his past experiences in Marion, Indiana, where a revitalization was needed, is a far cry from how Liberty Township is thriving at the moment.
“I just think we can be very selective in what we do and be smart about what we offer,” he said. “TIF financing is already being floated on the POD 18, and I just think that is very inappropriate.”
Donaldson said most residents in the northern portions of the township understand that growth is going to continue, but they’re taking issue with just how the growth is being managed.
“Right now, the trustees are revising the comprehensive plan of 2018 and they’re doing so without the help of the Regional Planning Commission, which is really concerning that you would kick it off to the Delaware County Finance Authority, which is kind of a quasi-governmental agency,” Donaldson said. “It almost seems like they’re avoiding the Regional Planning Commission because they would say that they have issues.”
Donaldson went on to say, “I think 50-foot lots and things like that are what will really change the identity in the north. I think if we followed the comprehensive plan a little more closely, and any deviations or needs would go to the (township’s) Board of Zoning Appeals like it’s already set up, I think that would be entirely appropriate. I am just really concerned about the direction things are going, and I think that we can right the ship and do it right. In some pockets, I think that we can absolutely maintain the rural feel and still develop and grow.”
A 10-year resident of Liberty Township, Franano said he got involved with the community immediately upon moving to the township, beginning with his homeowners association (HOA). Through his HOA work, Franano said he’s had interaction with both the township government and the county commissioners on issues that affect his community and the township as a whole.
Franano was extremely active in the fight to save the local fire and EMS services from being outsourced to the county, helping to organize residents to speak out against the proposal.
“Because of that, I became deeply submerged in the policy, the budget, and the services that the township provides through that interaction. I just thought that that was an important thing for us to stand up for,” Franano said.
Franano said he sees “two or three issues” before the township that will “write our story for the next 15-20 years and determine how Liberty Township grows and builds out,” beginning with how the less developed areas of the township grow.
“I don’t think there’s any way for us to fight against the demographic wave,” Franano said. “The good news is that people want to move to central Ohio … I think it’s going to be very difficult to push against the wave of people who want to move into our community, so I think it’s really important that we are making smart decisions now and laying out a vision of how we want our community to build out and grow so it can grow in a way that is not only harmonious to the history of our community and establish neighborhoods in our community but also grows in a way that is fiscally responsible. We have to make sure that the new development provides the local tax revenues that can fund the services they’re going to use.”
Franano said growing in a way that encourages mixed-use and commercial developments in certain areas would be good for the community because the township wouldn’t need to go back to homeowners for more taxes and increase what he feels is already too much of a burden on residents.
Franano added that smart, commercial development in the township “where it makes sense” would also be beneficial for the Olentangy Local School District by bringing in more tax dollars than what residential properties would generate while not adding students to schools.
In addition to having a quality plan for the growth that is sure to continue, Franano said he believes it will be imperative to forge strong community partnerships moving forward.
“I say a lot that I look at this area or mini region as a whole,” he said. “There’s Liberty Township, there’s the city of Powell, there are some different entities. And I don’t know that this entire area develops to its entire potential if all of those subparts aren’t healthy, thriving, and vibrant … I think there is an opportunity to continue partnering with the city of Powell, whether it’s fuel sharing, fiber networks, paths, or parks and recreation services.
“I think there are lots of ways we can work together because I think it’s going to take a solution from across the entire community to make sure that we grow and develop in a way that is not only sustainable but also respects the tradition of the community and keeps the character of the community that we all love and moved here for.”
Gemperline, a resident of Liberty Township for more than 30 years, said he ran for trustee initially due to the “unneeded abuse of taxes” being imposed on residents in the township, as well as what he described as developers “taking advantage of a desired community” in order to make “a lot of money off of it with high-density housing.”
Asked why he decided to seek another term on the Liberty Township Board of Trustees, Gemperline said he was compelled to do so because he feels the current trustee board is “spending like wild sailors.”
“They’ve spent more money, by far, than any trustee group to date,” Gemperline said. “They’ve increased payroll by 30% and $22.5 million in payroll. They are in the process of building $10 million in new buildings, and they say they can do this without raising taxes. That can’t be done … Tax increases are coming.”
Gemperline criticized his fellow trustees for continuing to allow developers to bring high-density housing to the township, adding that he believes the housing isn’t even “high-end, high-density housing.”
“They’re bringing in off-the-street access, generic, run-of-the-mill, cookie-cutter apartments, and it’s ugly,” Gemperline said. “It’s going to put a larger burden on our schools and infrastructure. We’re going to have growth. We can’t stop that. But they don’t have to keep stacking it up. The township residents want to keep it spread out. They want it to have a rural feel to it.”
Speaking on the passing of POD 18 in March, Gemperline noted that the township’s zoning board voted not to recommend the POD by a vote of 4-1. He added that he believes upwards of 70% of the residents who spoke on the POD during meetings were also against the POD. Asked why he believes the POD proposal still managed to pass despite the suggested lack of support, Gemperline claimed that other trustees’ relationships with members of the development team factored heavily in their votes.
As for how he would like to see growth shaped in the township in the years to come, Gemperline said he doesn’t see the township being a “large commercial development hub.” Gemperline said he wants to see “minimal commercial development, with no big box stores, done tastefully and spread out.”
“This community, if we don’t get a handle on development, will change drastically,” he went on to say.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.