Appeals court to decide if Union Township officials are turning a 'blind eye' to zoning rules for Doug Evans

Clermont auditor strips Evans' farming tax breaks
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-22 18:17:04-05

CINCINNATI — When Jason Gordon built a log cabin in rural Union Township in 2005, he was surrounded by farmland, a wandering stream and thick woodlands where his wife and two children would later hike.

That changed when an elderly neighbor sold 11 acres of family farmland to Doug Evans, owner of Evans Landscaping, in 2012.

What happened next is the subject of an eight-year fight involving the property owners, Clermont County and Union Township officials, the Ohio EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- and now the court system.

WCPO first reported on Gordon’s story last February.He claims that Evans stripped thousands of trees, rerouted a stream, added a retention pond and built an industrial park. All while enjoying a tax break and zoning exemptions that are meant for working farmers.

“I’ve been complaining to Union Township about this industrial park for eight years now,” Gordon said. “There’s no evidence that they ever came out and even investigated the property after any of those complaints.”

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Jason Gordon is suing Doug Evans and Union Township.

Union Township Attorney Larry Barbiere said no township officials would comment for this story because the dispute is now in court. Gordon sued the township and Evans on Feb. 19, 2020 – the same day that WCPO first reported the dispute.

WCPO spent several weeks investigating the status of the Evans property at 4370 Mt. Carmel Road, where Gordon claims at least six commercial businesses have been operating inside buildings that were built to look like red barns. And two adjoining 5-acre parcels of land which were more recently purchased by Evans.

Evans and his corporate attorney, Zach Peterson, declined interviews. In a statement to WCPO, Peterson accused Gordon of harassing their tenants and wrote that Evans is “merely trying to improve the property for the betterment of the community as a whole.”

Evans has not been charged with any crime related to Gordon’s complaints. In fact, Union Township officials have repeatedly sided with Evans in this zoning dispute.

But a Clermont County spokesman said officials are now considering legal action against Evans for water and land permit complaints on properties he owns on and near Mt. Carmel Road.

“We attempt to give property owners every opportunity to comply before seeking resolution through legal action. We are examining next steps,” county spokesman Mike Boehmer wrote in an email to WCPO.

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An overhead view of Doug Evans' land where neighbor accuses him of building and industrial park in Union Township.

This comes one month after a federal judge delayed prison for Evans for a fourth time due to COVID fears. He sentenced Evans to 21 months in prison for minority-contracting fraud in January 2020 after a jury convicted him of creating a shell company to win millions in government demolition jobs that were meant for minority and small business owners.

Evans is now set to report to prison on April 9, but his attorney is arguing for home confinement.

Doug Evans at his federal court sentencing for minority contracting fraud in 2020.
Evans Landscaping owner Doug Evans walked into federal court in January 2020 ahead of his sentencing for minority contracting fraud.

Evans is a high-profile figure on the East Side. He started his landscaping empire with a pickup truck as a high school student, eventually hiring two teachers to help him. He now employs more than 250.

He is also Newtown’s largest property owner, part owner of Ivy Hills Country Club, and owns vast swaths of land under different holding companies in Hamilton and Clermont counties, including parcels that adjoin Gordon’s land.

“Economic development like this provides jobs, improves the community, raises the tax base, and spurs growth,” Peterson wrote about plans for the Mt. Carmel Road land.

Evans applied for a Current Agricultural Use Valuation, or CAUV, with the Clermont County auditor’s office in 2012 soon after purchasing 4370 Mt. Carmel Road, and he was approved.

The CAUV program is meant to give large tax breaks to working farmers so they can afford to keep their land, said Sean Suder, who is the former chief land use attorney for the city of Cincinnati. He has no connection to this dispute or knowledge of this case.

“The whole purpose of the CAUV is to give farmers a break on their taxes. It’s an incentive to continue to farm property,” said Suder. “People play games with taxes all the time, so there are instances where people try to stretch the definition.”

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Attorney Sean Suder who specializes in land use and zoning.

When Evans reapplied for CAUV status in March 2018 after moving the property to a new holding company, Mt. Carmel Farms LLC, he wrote on the application that 11.7 acres of the property had been used for commercial timber for two and three years prior. He also wrote that 5.7 acres had been used for nursery vegetables and flowers and 5 acres for noncommercial woodland in 2017. The auditor approved that application.

But Gordon said he’s never seen any crops being grown on the Mt. Carmel Road property over the years.

“There’s zero agriculture happening on that property,” Gordon told WCPO last year. “There’s just been a steady progression of construction, more barns, asphalt. The hillside being removed for more barns. Concrete. More renters. More traffic.”

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Overhead view of Doug Evans' properties on and near Mt. Carmel Road, Union Township.

This did not go unnoticed by Clermont County Auditor Linda Fraley. Her office stripped the CAUV tax break for the Mt. Carmel Road property and an adjoining five-acre parcel owned by Evans after WCPO’s story last year.

“Evidently, from your pictures I’m sure that it would be a change in status,” Fraley said in an interview last January, after viewing overhead footage of Evans’ property captured by a WCPO drone. “He’s at very high risk of losing it (CAUV status) based on what you’re showing me.”

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Clermont Couny Auditor Linda Fraley in January 2020.

Her office sent a letter to Evans in October denying the CAUV tax break because of “lack of farming activity,” based on aerial views and field appraiser visits. Her office also reclassified two parcels on Mt. Carmel Road from agricultural land to commercial.

This more than doubled Evans’ taxes on the 11-acre parcel from $22,848 in 2019 to $57,006. In 2019 he paid $7,287 in taxes on that land, according to auditor’s data.

On the 5-acre adjoining parcel on Mt. Carmel Road, Evans paid $103 in taxes in 2019 and owes $4,235 in 2020, according to auditor's data.

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10-year time lapse of Mount Carmel property.

“We respectfully disagree with the county’s determination,” Peterson wrote. “We fear that the county’s determination was an overreaction, at least in part to public pressure stemming from media coverage and not entirely based on application of the CAUV rules. Our investigation certainly suggests this.”

Separate from the CAUV tax break, Gordon also complained to Union Township officials about why commercial buildings were being erected on land that is zoned as estate residential.

“Typically estate residential-type zoning is large lot, maybe a five-acre minimum,” Suder said. “These tend to be larger homes on larger properties with maybe a longer driveway … and an accessory building, maybe a small barn or a pool house.”

Last year Union Township Administrator Ken Geis declined an on-camera interview but told WCPO that Zoning Director Cory Wright’s opinion on the property “is consistent with estate residential zoning.” He declined to answer questions about that opinion.

WCPO obtained documents through a public records request that show Union Township officials gave approval for Evans to build agricultural structures on the property.

“Your description of the proposed cattle and hay barn structure meets the criteria for agricultural exemption from zoning regulation,” Wright wrote to Evans in a 2013 letter.

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Steel It sign attached to a building on Doug Evans property in January 2020.

But Gordon insists the buildings were being used by several commercial tenants – including two landscaping companies, an auto repair shop, a concrete sawing company, a steel fabricator and an exercise equipment re-seller, as well as being rented as storage for boats, recreational vehicles and commercial equipment. Lease agreements between Evans and several tenants, obtained by Gordon as part of the legal discovery process, support this claim.

Last year WCPO asked Geis about his relationship with Evans. Geis said that he would consider Evans a friend but doesn’t socialize with him. When asked if he gives Evans any special treatment, Geis said, “of course not.”

During Evans’ sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court last January, his attorney, Ben Dusing, played an hour-long video of supporters who spoke favorably about Evans.

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Union Township Administrator Ken Geis

Geis appeared in that video.

“Doug Evans is just the guy next door that works hard, a real benevolent person,” Geis said. “He’s always been, you know, honest. There’s a lot of integrity there.”

If neighbors disagree with a zoning opinion, Geis told WCPO last year, there are two options: They can sue Evans in court; or they can bring the issue to the township’s board of zoning appeals, which could issue a citation for a zoning violation.

Gordon opted to take his dispute to a judge.

He filed a lawsuit in Clermont County Court of Common Pleas last February against Evans for nuisance, improper use of a shared gravel easement and zoning violations. He is also suing Union Township for selective enforcement of its own zoning regulations and violating his constitutional rights as a property owner.

Evans filed a countersuit against Gordon alleging harassment of his tenants, including a steel manufacturing company, and easement misuse. He is seeking attorney’s fees and more than $25,000 in damages.

Union Township asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that qualified immunity shielded Wright from claims like this.

But Clermont County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jerry McBride refused to dismiss the case and wrote in an August order, “the court will not infer that the claims … should be dismissed at this time.”

Union Township appealed this ruling to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals, where oral arguments are set for March 1. The case may be stalled until the appeals court rules, likely this summer.

“The only person that this lawsuit is slowing down is me,” Gordon said. “I’m at the mercy of the court, as they say.”

While Gordon waits for his day in court, he claims that Evans recently stripped thousands of additional trees from an adjoining 5-acre parcel on Briarwood Lane.

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Overhead view of Jason Gordon's log cabin and the development on Doug Evans property which surrounds him.

“I inspected the site. There is more than one acre of land that has been cleared of brush and small trees without a permit,” Interim Clermont County Building Official Heath Wilson wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to Gordon. “I explained that a permit is required any time over one acre of ground has been cleared in Clermont County. Mr. Evans stated that he would get the permits necessary for the work that has been conducted.”

In a statement to WCPO, Peterson wrote that Evans is working to resolve permit complaints.

“The truth is that the various permit requirements at issue here are subject to different yet reasonable interpretations, and the bottom line is that it was not clear whether permits were required for all the work,” Peterson wrote. “While it may be simpler to view the regulations in ‘black and white,’ doing so ignores their practical application.”

The Ohio EPA investigated an illegal fill complaint against Evans in December 2019 and determined that a permit had been needed before a stream was filled and moved. EPA spokesperson Dina Pierce said the Evans Group applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a nationwide permit, and is working with the Ohio EPA on an after-the-fact permit.

But Clermont County officials have not resolved their permit issues with Evans.

On the Briarwood Lane complaint that more than one acre of trees had been cut down, county spokesperson Mike Boehmer wrote to WCPO that they had “sent letters to the property owner stating that a Water Management & Sediment Control permit was needed. No permit has been given. We’re investigating the best future options.”

On the Mt. Carmel Road complaints from 2019 about construction of a retention pond without a permit, Boehmer wrote, “The property owner applied for a permit for the pond but did not respond to a request for plans for the pond. No plans have been received … We are examining next steps.”

The county is also investigating complaints on these properties about possible sediment and stormwater control violations, Boehmer wrote.

For his part, Gordon is hoping that if he wins in court a judge may issue an injunction stopping future development on Evans’ land. He is also seeking more than $25,000 in damages and attorney’s fees.

“We literally built this house with our own hands and it was a place where I wanted to raise my family,” Gordon said. “I’d like to see it be a safe place for my kids and protect my property value. And you know just make sure that the township is doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and that’s protecting the rights of its citizens.”

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