Cheetah breeding in plans; development transforming township

Plans by the Cincinnati Zoo to breed cheetahs outside Lebanon are one of several planned, ongoing or completed projects transforming this part of Warren County.

Development of the $175 million Miami Valley Gaming & Racing racino off Interstate 75 and a 400-acre commercial park, centered around a $12 million Flying J travel center off Interstate 71, have captured attention — including some opposition — in and around Turtlecreek Twp., an unincorporated community of about 15,000 residents between the two interstates and Cincinnati and Dayton.

On May 1, a group of county leaders gathered in Lebanon for formation of the I-75 Area Plan steering committee.

The map, and materials in the committee binder, identify more than 600 acres of land owned by the Cincinnati Zoo and also includes land owned by the Otterbein retirement community. The Otterbein land has been discussed as a site for a proposed college campus and cultural and performing arts center.

Some of the zoo land already is being used to produce organic food for human consumers and zoo animals. Other large tracts off Hamilton and Nickel roads are set aside for the breeding of cheetahs, including long-range plans for a wetlands area to open to school groups and tourists, officials said.

“It will be in the future,” Rhiannon Hoeweler, a senior project manager at the zoo and botanical center. “In the big picture, that’s where we would want to be.”

In 2006-2007, zoo officials met with Warren County planning officials to see if a cheetah recovery center would be permitted on the donated lands, according to Mike Yetter, the county’s zoning supervisor.

“They came in and talked about a plan for cheetahs,” Yetter said. “Since then, we haven’t seen or heard anything.”

On Thursday, Yetter said they are expecting zoo officials to submit a site plan.

The move of the cheetah recovery center to Turtlecreek Township depends on whether the zoo can sell their current cheetah breeding facility on the Mast Farm, north of Cincinnati, Hoeweler said. About a dozen cheetahs currently breed on land also used to run the exotic cats and quarantine large animals, she said.

While hoping to be able to welcome the public to the Warren County facility, Hoeweler said there are no plans to create a wildlife park like The Wilds, east of Columbus, where exotic animals roam in close proximity to tour groups.

“That is not really an option,” Hoeweler said, emphasizing the cheetah area would be well secured, using infrastructure like that used at the zoo. “Now we’re working toward that with the wetland.”

Waterfowl already are flocking to a 24-acre wetland, recently reclaimed on zoo property, known as the Bowyer Farm.

Property records show much of that land, off Mason-Montgomery, Hamilton and Nickel roads, was donated by Helen and Dallas Bowyer, on the condition it not be sold and remain in an agricultural use. Cheetah breeding is an agricultural use, Yetter said.

Also on the 450-acre Bowyer Farm (pronounced Boyer), an organic farming company, is raising produce for members in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri, as well as hay for zoo elephants and lettuce for its manatees, on 50 acres leased from the zoo.

The Indianapolis-based Green BEAN Delivery relies primarily on a network of farmers and artisans for its products. Bean stands for biodynamics, education, agriculture and nutrition.

At the Turtlecreek Twp. operation, greenhouses are under construction, and plans call for expanded production and educational components, officials said.

“The ultimate goal is to turn this property into a real, live ecosystem,” said John Freeland, vice president of sales and marketing for Green BEAN.

Beyond the zoo lands

The I-75 plan contemplates uses for the land east of the interstate and between Ohio 63 and Ohio 122, near the Butler County line. The racino already is under construction, just west of a string of prisons and rehabilitation centers leading east up Ohio 741 to the main campus of Otterbein, a non-profit health and human service ministry that serves more than 3,000 residents.

The Solid Rock Church, Cincinnati Premium Outlets and Traders World are just west, along I-75. Some of the land has been annexed by the city of Monroe.

Otterbein recently opened a $12 million Life Enrichment center, providing exercise, lodging and other services in one building on the main campus. Board members include philanthropist Otto Buddig Jr. and former Ohio Sen. Richard Finan head community efforts to build a $12 million arts and culture center on land across Ohio 741 from the campus.

The arts and culture center process is on hold until next year, according to Gary Horning, vice president for marketing and communications at Otterbein.

Likewise Otterbein has no plans to move forward with the college campus concept, contemplated in a regional land assessment plan commissioned about five years ago with the county.

“At this point it’s nothing more than a wonderful theory,” Horning said.

Turtlecreek Transformation

Like plans supporting the development of the truck stop and commerce center at Ohio 123 and I-71, east of Lebanon, the planning process for areas of Turtlecreek and Franklin townships adjoining I-75 is being handled by Warren County officials.

Still Jon Sams, a lawyer and member of the OKI regional planning commission, is a driving force.

“I see where the growth is coming. I see where it is coming from,” said Sams, a former Farsi linguist with the U.S. Navy. “If I were to put a bulls-eye, I would say that’s my township.”

Elected three years ago by 88 votes, Sams has advocated for planning in anticipation of development in a township still run by the trustees, rather than an administrator.

The township now uses budgets overseen by Fiscal Officer Tammy Boggs. Long-time trustees Dan Jones and Jim VanDeGrift focus on other areas of township operation, including a full-service fire and ambulance service.

County officials see the planning processes as essential to managing the inevitability of growth in the fast-growing area between Dayton and Cincinnati.

“This allows us to control that development,” Yetter said.

VanDeGrift, a Turtlecreek Twp. trustee for 20 years, said the township leadership was intent on maintaining basic services, while managing growth.

In coming months, the steering committee plans to hold a variety of public meetings seeking comment on how to set up the I-75 area.

Township residents opposed the Flying J plan and have embraced farmland preservation in the past.

On Friday, Ted McClure stood outside his barn, across Nickel Road from the proposed cheetah breeding area. He was concerned about other changes in the area, including the racino under construction about a mile away, as well the zoo plans.

“My thought is no,” McClure said. “I don’t want a bunch of animals in my front yard.”

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