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Outgoing Park Hills Council Maneuvers to Prevent Bike Trail with Conservancy

There is division emerging in Park Hills over the proposed creation of a conservancy where the old trolley line used to run, an action some regard as an attempt to block a proposed bike trail through the city, and an action that would be committed by a lame duck city council that may not have full support for a conservancy when the new council takes over in January.
 
Councilwoman Pam Spoor said that she began working on the conservancy effort after the most recent city council caucus meeting. Her husband, Richard Spoor, created the necessary documents and filed papers with the IRS to create a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
 
"We discussed this at the last caucus meeting, and I laid out the plan in great detail as to what I thought we should do," Spoor said. "I wanted to put everything on the table. I think it will be a great thing for the residents and for the city going forward." The issue will have its first reading at Monday night's city council meeting.
 
The conservancy would prevent the property from being used by residents, according to the ordinance presented on the city's website.
 
Spoor said that she was motivated by the recently approved housing development by James Berling which will take nearly 13 acres of land and place 20 new single family homes on it off Audubon Road. Berling, after months of difficult discussions at city council meetings, offered to keep six acres as green space. Spoor said that the donated acreage from Berling could also be put into the trust that she hopes to create around the old trolley line property, which was donated to the various cities when it ceased operations.
 
However, in documents posted on the Park Hills city website, the ordinance spells out that the city needs to declare this situation an emergency, which would allow the council to have only one reading of the ordinance instead of the normal two readings in order to pass it.  Spoor said there are reasons for the emergency.
 
"Well, (Councilman) Monty O'Hara was very vocal about wanting the land put into a conservancy and since he won't be on council next year, I wanted him to have a chance to vote on it," she said. O'Hara dropped out of the race before November's election. "Also, the records for real estate transferred is dated January 1, and it is easier for the records. There is nothing sinister or lacking in transparency about it. We have passed several ordinances in emergency, and it is commonly done. It is more of a matter of timing than anything else."
 
O'Hara and Councilman Mark Cooper, who was appointed to city council following the departure of Skip Fangman, who died, will not be part of the new city council in January. Cooper lost his bid to be elected to a full term. Some members of the newly elected council argue that the issue should be carried over to the new term.
 
"I think any decision to give land to someone else  should be thoroughly discussed at several business meetings," said Jason Reser, who was elected for the first time in November. "It should go through a more stringent procedure, and be treated with much more due diligence. I do believe they are working this to avoid having the new council as a whole voting on it, and we were voted in by the people so the new compilation of council is what the people want. I think it is sneaky. The conservancy might be a good thing, but the papers haven't been filed for a (nonprofit) so it doesn't even exist in a legal way yet. It needs to be better vetted. I don't think it is right to rush it. I have looked at Kentucky statutes and this doesn't qualify as an emergency. Plus, if down the line, the city wants this property back for some reason, the city will have to buy it back. It doesn't make any sense."
 
Mayor Matt Mattone also doesn't see things the same way as Spoor, either.
 
"My whole issue with this conservancy is that we don't know anything about it," he explained. "There are plenty of conservancies in the area, the Kenton Conservancy stands out in my mind, with a proven track record, proven financials, and people on the board that were not appointed by other private citizens, as this one has. I am not comfortable having council make a decision of giving away this land without discussing it publicly. I don't like giving away public property to a private entity that we don't know anything about and was just created."
 
He said on the surface, this has all the look of a land grab. Mattone said the documents specify what can and cannot be done with the property, and first on the list is to prevent a bike trail. 
 
"All legitimate focus is to deny bike trails forever," the mayor stated.
 
An email to supporters from Councilman Mark Cooper was more overt in spelling out the plans to prevent the next council from voting on the matter. "Well, this is it," he wrote. We are reading an emergency ordinance Monday to move the old trolley line into a trust. This will be our only chance to make this happen. We have the votes to override the mayor presently, but will not starting in January with the new council members."
 
Spoor doesn't deny that she hopes to prevent the land from being used as a bike trail. She said that she has listened to the residents and that is what they want.
 
"There is genuine angst and worry coming from the people," said Spoor, who was reelected in November. "I think we have to be respectful of the residents' wishes. There are 13 miles of bike trails in Devou Park, some paved and some dirt, that are easily reached by any resident of Park Hills. The people are OK with a pedestrian pathway, but they don't want a paved bike trail in their back yards."
 
Spoor said she talked to people in Ft. Thomas who also have a conservancy that has been in place for twenty years, and she said there would be clear economic benefits for the city.
 
City Attorney Todd McMurtry is researching the issue, studying it to see if the ordinance and the reasons qualify as an emergency. Legally, one definition of the emergency for the purpose of passing an ordinance is as follows: an occasion of urgency and suddenness, where something helpful needs to be done at once; an emergency is more pressing, and naturally less common than an exigency; a crisis is an emergency, on the outcome of which everything depends. McMurtry said the documents look appropriate. He said he was not at the caucus meeting, but he was at the October and November meetings where a citizen, Greg Johnson, formally presented a petition asking for the trolley property behind his house be divided among him and other nearby property owners who have maintained it. McMurtry was asked to look into that possibility.
 
After the November city council meeting McMurtry said that he believed that those instructions were canceled in favor of possibly looking into a conservancy some time in the future. He said he did not get any indication that it was an emergency to create a conservancy before the end of the year.
 
"I don't have an opinion yet," he said. "I should have one by Monday night to be able to advise the mayor and council."
 
The general feeling from the caucus meeting was that the five council members that were there were OK with the presentation of the conservancy by Spoor. Monty O'Hara was not at the caucus, but he has studied the documents.
 
"I didn't know it was going to happen, and I was a little alarmed," O'Hara said. He has served on council for the last ten years. "I trust that if it's a good thing, it will go through, but I want to make sure it is done right. It shouldn't be done as an emergency if possible. I am inclined to vote for it, but why the emergency? That is my question. I told Pam (Spoor) that it would be better if it did not have this appearance of being political."
 
Councilman Greg Claypole didn't want to comment on the conservancy but said he hopes people will come to the meeting Monday night and let council know what they feel about the matter, so that he, for one, will know the peoples' will.
 
Councilwoman Kathy Zembrodt likes the idea. She and Claypole were reelected in November, too.
 
"I think (the conservancy) is awesome," she stated. "We have talked about it repeatedly, and people have come to us with their fears that that the area will be turned into another Loveland Bike Trail, and we need to put it to rest. My two main reasons for being in favor of this is that the six of us have been working on this and we need to finish it. The second reason is that we need a place to put the Berling property fairly soon, and this will be a great solution for that. But the people that oppose it, I would like to ask them what they want to accomplish with all this fighting? And what do you want to spend the taxpayers' money on that is in the best interest of the city?"
 
Council will meet on Monday at 7 p.m. Based on what McMurtry advises the mayor and council on whether the proposed ordinance qualifies as an emergency, the ordinance will either have one reading and pass into law if approved, or it will have the first of two readings. 
 
Written by Patricia A. Scheyer
Michael Monks contributed to this report