The challenge of growth: Rural NKY grapples with change

Haley Parnell
Haley Parnell
Haley is a reporter for LINK nky. Email her at [email protected]

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When Jen Armstrong lived in Crestview, the houses were close enough that she could smell her neighbor’s cigarette smoke waft through her open window.

The Armstrong family house on point-something of an acre” sat about 15 feet from their neighbors’ home in Campbell County. Though Armstrong said her former neighbor was pleasant to live near, the proximity that allowed her to hear a toilet flush from the next house over was not.

“Her bathroom was right across from my kitchen,” Armstrong said. “The way the bathrooms were built was that the windows overlooked the tub, and I heard her flush the toilet. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, did I just hear her flush the toilet?’ I went to my husband, Dave, and I was like, ‘All right, let’’s start looking.’ “

There is more land to maintain and a longer work commute to downtown Cincinnati from her current home in unincorporated Campbell County. But Armstrong said those are sacrifices she is willing to make.

Armstrong and others who prefer rural living cite benefits including space to sprawl, wildlife – and no toilet-flushing noises – when detailing their decision to live away from the pace of the city. But as Northern Kentucky’s population increases and expands south into more rural areas, tension has developed between those moving into that open space and those who would prefer it to stay just that – open. 

Residents of Kenton County face a similar situation.

“The suburban and urban areas are continually growing, and in Kenton County, the way to grow is by moving further south,” said Andy Videkovich, planning manager at Planning at Planning and Development Services of Kenton County. 

The trend is happening regionwide. Campbell County saw a 3% increase in population between 2010 and 2020, according to economic development company BE NKY. Kenton County’s population, meanwhile, increased by almost 6% and Boone County’s by just under 15%. 

The 41001  code where Armstrong lives in Campbell County saw a 17.6% growth in population over the last 10 years.

“People that live out here choose to live 20 minutes from Kroger, 10 minutes from Walmart,” Armstrong said. “And even though it’s a farther drive, the people that chose to live out here, it’s for the same reasons. It’s for peace and quiet. They like the natural scenery. When I lived in Crestview, I never saw any wild animals.”

Her move to southern Campbell County around 2009 helped Armstrong escape that suburban lifestyle. But little did she know that years later, beginning in 2022, the peace and quiet she had found was at risk.

After a local family sold the land that surrounds three sides of Armstrong’s property, Maronda Homes proposed a development that would put 93 homes on approximately 18 acres in what is referred to as a cluster overlay design on 47 total acres of land. The remaining acreage would be used for green and community space, developers said. 

Members of the community are involved in a lawsuit aimed at stopping the development, and attorneys recently filed a motion to transfer the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court. 

Armstrong said if the subdivision were built, she would be able to see the rows of houses from her backyard. Additionally, a road connecting the subdivision to S Licking Pike would run roughly 10 feet from her property line. Though Armstrong is opposed to that development, she said she isn’t opposed to all development; it’s the density of the cluster overlay design that she is against.

This illustration shows where the Maronda Homes development would go from an aerial view. Illustration by James Robertson | LINK nky contributor

“The cluster to have these property lines from house to house from what’s being proposed in my neighborhood are going to be 10 feet apart,” Armstrong said. “And that’s fine if you’re in city limits, but again, you’re out here in the county, and I think it’s just too much.”

Armstrong’s neighbors to the left are Steve and Angela Siry, who have lived on S Licking Pike for 20 years. The Sirys told LINK nky last year that they live there for a country lifestyle and enjoy being surrounded by rolling hills and cattle. If the development were to happen, they said, they fear losing their peace and quiet. LikeArmstrong, they cite the density of the proposed development. 

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“We did figure eventually, someday, we’re going to lose our beautiful view out the front, with the cattle and rolling hills,” Steve Siry said. “But, 1-acre, 2-acre, 5-acre lots would be a lot better to look at than houses sitting on top of each other.”

A road that could go to a proposed development would be a close to Jen Armstrong’s driveway. Photo by James Robertson | LINK nky contributor 

But when it comes to rural living, “expectations and realities are two different things,” said Brian Miller, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Northern Kentucky. Property rights stop at your property line. 

Miller said a conservation development, or cluster development, is an innovative option that allows for closer homes but more overall green space. But such developments can be jarring to residents.

“Northern Kentuckians, God bless us, we’re great people, but we just don’t believe in anything that we’ve never seen before until we’ve experienced it,” he said. 

Though developments like the proposed Maronda Homes subdivision are one example of a cluster development, some are on a much larger scale, Miller said. They would be akin to building a new Covington out in the suburbs. Unlike a typical development that only features houses, cluster developments could have their own park spaces, farmers markets, fire department and libraries.

Cluster developments are largely similar to traditional developments, he said, but there are denser parts of the property than in some other developments.

“They’re really not a whole lot different than what a traditional development would end up being,” Miller said. “It just happens to be that they’re set off in little plots. You’re really still taking the same amount of land that you had before, but if you go with a higher-intensity, mixed-use development, it solves a lot of issues. One, you’re peeling some people away that would normally gravitate toward rural areas.”

Ideally, those types of developments would be built in the suburbs, where the infrastructure would support them, Miller said. However, topography and lack of utilities in an area wouldn’t necessarily prevent it from ever being developed. He said this type of development wouldn’t stop people from moving to a rural area but would slow it down. 

“Somebody’s going to move there,” Miller said. At the end of the day, he said, it’s all about supply and demand. 

“What we see is an opportunity to bring new forms of development to the supply chain of shelter,” he said. “That may mean over and above what we’re normally used to seeing – more individuals in a particular square footage or acreage than what you’ve traditionally seen available.” 

New home plots in the Ballyshannon subdivision in Boone county. Photo by James Robertson | LINK nky contributor 

He said this different type of development pattern gives people another living option beyond urban, suburban and rural. But it is not a cheap alternative.

“It’s actually very expensive because you’re giving up a number of units that you could put on the market,” Miller said. “You’re going to take a lot of that land off the market. And the trade-off is that you’re able to build more homes into a smaller area kind of clustered.”

He said there isn’t yet a good example of this type of development in Northern Kentucky. The areas in the region where Miller thinks it could work are along Pleasant Valley Road in Boone County, in Independence and in Taylor Mill.

As the region grows, where do people live? ‘That’s the struggle there’ 

Population growth has occurred primarily in the southern portions of the region in the last 10 years, said BE NKY Research Director David McAleese. 

According to the economic development company, the region’s population grew from almost 369,000 in 2010 to just under 400,000 in 2020. By 2030, that number is expected to top 422,000. 

Kenton County’s Videkovich said he understands why people move to rural areas – for that little slice of paradise that is still relatively close to the city. But, he said, when longtime owners of farms or other properties sell their land, it is typically developed. 

“That’s the struggle there – trying to allow people to do things without infringing on their rights and expectations, but then also kind of protecting the character of the area for anyone else,” Videkovich said.

Drees Homes Division President Ben Taylor said the development company seeks land and new community opportunities based on proximity to good schools and other conveniences.

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“Available utilities, such as sanitary sewer and gas, are also important considerations and often are not developed in rural areas,” Taylor said. “Comprehensive plan and zoning requirements generally factor in the availability of utilities, access and surrounding uses. Without them, (they) typically require larger lots.”

The demand for growth in those areas is not expected to slow down. BE NKY projects the number of households in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties to grow by more than 13,000 between 2020 and 2030. 

Taylor said the region has also seen a housing shortage over the last few years, and the additional households need to go somewhere. 

“When it comes to local housing availability, Northern Kentucky has seen historically low inventory levels of existing homes on the market for the last several years,” he said. “New home construction has helped fill that need.

“To create a stable market overall, it will really take housing options at all levels, ranging from rentals to condominiums to single-family homes. Some neighborhoods in rural areas may satisfy a small percentage of interested buyers, but it isn’t going to be the primary solution to affordability.”

A new development called the Downs of Nicholson, located at the northeastern intersection of Taylor Mill Road and Madison Pike, is on the border of Independence and unincorporated Kenton County.

The city of Independence and the county agreed that any development in that area had to serve as a transition between the suburban and rural areas, Videkovich said. The Downs of Nicholson will be mixed-use with residential and commercial components, he said, and the architectural plans call for keeping a farmlike or barnlike feel to help blend in with the area.

Even with strategic plans to maintain the area’s integrity, Independence City Council member Greg Steffen has expressed his resistance to the project and was the only “no” vote at the council meeting on March 6, where the plans were approved.

“This kind of high-density residential development is the kind of thing we really need to avoid,” Steffen argued previously at a Feb. 6 council meeting. “I’m all in favor of the commercial side of it because it might be a good feature for the city.”

Steffen also had other concerns.  

“It’s the type of thing we used to be against, and now it seems to be common to add more and more apartments, as I’ve seen all around the city. (This) increases our traffic, our crowding in stores and schools, which I know are outside of our purview, but it has that effect,” he said. 

Steffen said Independence had annexed the land to prevent Covington from pushing farther south into undeveloped rural areas. Now, he said,  Independence appeared to be doing the same thing the annexation was meant to prevent.

Videkovich said that sort of conflict has been an ongoing concern.

“Where the city meets the country, there is that fringe,” he said. “It’s been ongoing for the 18 years that I’ve been here.”

Residents of rural areas typically say they don’t want development because of traffic generation, concerns about the size and character of the development, and light pollution, Videkovich said.

There are also logistical explanations for why rural areas have less progress than suburban and urban areas, according to planning managers in Northern Kentucky. The Urban Service Boundary, or what Videkovich calls “focus areas,” limits the extension of public services like water and sewer.

“That’s basically the line where the infrastructure can support higher-density residential development,” he said. “So that’s going to limit how much you can really do out there.”

Videkovich also said the road infrastructure in rural areas needs to be built to withstand the traffic that comes with increased development.  

Residents of southern Kenton County created the South Kenton County Citizens group, which he said acts as a liaison between the planning commission and the community.

“Those folks are really a core group of citizens that are leading that organization,” Videkovich said. “I can’t say that all of the ideas they come up with all the time represent how everybody feels down there about certain things, but they certainly work very hard to at least get the word out and get folks’ input before they decide something needs to be changed or updated.”

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Who makes development decisions, and what is the process? 

To the west of Kenton County, Boone County is quickly growing in population and development. Still, according to Boone County Planning Commission Executive Director Kevin Costello, roughly two-thirds of the county remains unincorporated. Florence is the second-largest city in Northern Kentucky, with almost 32,000 residents; still, unincorporated Boone County nearly triples that population with 91,485 residents.

Topography plays a role. Most development in Boone County, such as the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, sits on flat land with utilities and roads to support it. The developed cities of Florence, Union and Walton also sit on relatively flat land supported by infrastructure, he said.

“If you’re looking at a map, then kind of the eastern portion is more planned for growth, whereas the western portion into the south is rural,” Costello said.

Jenna LeCount, Director of Community Development Services at the Boone County Planning Commission, said residents’ involvement in updates to the comprehensive plan, which occur every five years, is integral to having their opinions heard. The county is updating its comprehensive plan, which guides appropriate development.

Residents should get involved at the zoning phase, which is well before conversations about specific developments occur, LeCount said. 

“The distinction to make in the planning process is the difference between land use and zoning,” she said. “So often … individuals are more engaged in development discussions during the zoning process, but that process comes sometimes years after the recommended planned land use.”

Costello said development challenges in rural areas are consistent with rural land in other counties lacking road and sewer infrastructure. Because of that, he said, places like the land near Big Bone Lick State Park have very low projected growth.

“Some people like the changes in terms of convenience, amenities and recreation,” Costello said. “Some people are concerned about it; some people don’’t want it anymore. They got it, but they don’t want it anymore. It’s a challenge for everybody.”

There are 15 members on the Boone County Planning Commission – two from Walton, one from Union, six from Florence and six from the county – so each has representation. Kenton County operates similarly, with at least one representative for each city. Bigger cities like Covington have three. 

Boone County Judge/Executive Gary Moore appoints six members to the commission, Costello said. One of those is Bob Schwenke, a third-generation farmer and one of the biggest landowners in the county. Costello said Schwenke’s knowledge of the rural area makes him well-suited to represent that interest on the commission.

Campbell County operates differently. Some cities, like Newport and Fort Thomas, control their own planning and zoning services. 

Back in southern Campbell County, a group of residents has banded together to create the Preserve Protect and Keep South Campbell County Rural LLC nonprofit, which filed a lawsuit against the fiscal court last month. 

The nonprofit was formed by residents and landowners living in unincorporated Campbell County who are “upset with the planning commission, planning staff and fiscal court continuing to approve overdevelopment in rural Campbell County,” said Steve Megerle, attorney for the residents involved in both the Maronda Homes court battle and the nonprofit. 

Megerle said the petition he filed last month was prompted by the county’s subdivision regulations and zoning ordinances being in conflict with each other.

“The county needs to resolve the conflicts in the zoning code before they should adopt or approve any more dense subdivisions in the rural parts of the county,” he said.

The view from Armstrong’s yard. Photo by James Robertson | LINK nky

Armstrong, who used to smell her neighbors’ cigarette smoke and hear their toilet flush in her Crestview home, is one of the residents involved in the Preserve Protect and Keep South Campbell County Rural LLC lawsuit. She said there isn’t representation on the planning commission for unincorporated Campbell County, which sparked the creation of the nonprofit. 

The purpose of the lawsuit, she said, is not to prevent progress but to make sure it’s more mindful.

“Preserve is to make the other people realize we do value our land out here, and we want to keep it that way,” she said.   

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