UNION TOWNSHIP — When Jason Gordon and his wife, Nicole, built a log cabin in rural Union Township in 2005, they were surrounded by woodlands and wildlife.
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 a six-year fight involving the property owners, Clermont County and Union Township officials, the Ohio EPA and now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Gordon claims that Evans stripped thousands of trees to build an industrial park while enjoying a tax break and zoning exemptions that are meant for working farmers.
“Doug is certainly using the property for its unintended use and then the township is letting him get away with it,” Gordon said.
But Evans’ corporate attorney, Zach Peterson, accused Gordon of having a personal vendetta and, in a statement to WCPO, wrote that Evans has invested heavily in improving the land and surrounding property “for the betterment of the community as a whole.”
WCPO spent six weeks investigating the Evans property at 4370 Mt. Carmel Road, including complaints that at least six commercial businesses have been operating inside buildings that were built to look like red barns.
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 Clermont County officials are questioning how Evans uses this property while the Ohio EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers investigate whether he illegally redirected the flow of a stream without a permit.
This comes a month after a federal judge sentenced Evans to 21 months in prison for minority contracting fraud. A jury convicted Evans in December 2018 of creating a shell company to win millions in government demolition jobs that were meant for minority and small business owners.
Evans is a high-profile figure on the East Side. He turned a high school landscaping job into a highly successful business that now employs 250. He is Newtown’s largest property owner, part owner of Ivy Hills Country Club, and owns vast acres of land under different holding companies in Hamilton and Clermont counties, including parcels that adjoin Gordon’s land.
Evans and Peterson declined on-camera interviews for this story. Instead Peterson provided a written statement.
“Before Evans’s investment, there was no basic infrastructure in this rural area … Evans is just trying to improve the area,” Peterson wrote, noting that Evans installed water service and is working with Duke Energy to bring electric service to the Mt. Carmel Road property.
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, former chief land use attorney for the city of Cincinnati who now works at Calfee, Halter & Griswold.
“There will always be people who try to take advantage of every program, and some will succeed,” said Suder, who has no ties to Evans or this dispute.
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.
“Evans does not create CAUV program rules and does not approve CAUV status applications,” Peterson wrote. “As a landscaping company, Evans conducts a variety of agricultural uses on its properties, including growing crops, maintaining nursery stock, baling hay, harvesting timber, and the like.”
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 said. “There’s just been a steady progression of construction, more barns, asphalt. The hillside being removed for more barns. Concrete. More renters. More traffic.”
Gordon complained to Clermont County Auditor Linda Fraley last year about Evans’ agricultural tax break.
In an interview with WCPO, Fraley said auditors inspected the Evans property on Mt. Carmel Road in May 2019 and removed some of the CAUV tax break because of the new buildings. That raised Evans’ taxes from $7,287 in 2018 to $22,848 in 2019.
WCPO's Sky 9 drone captured overhead views of the property a few weeks ago and showed that footage to Fraley.
“Evidently from your pictures I’m sure that it would be a change in status,” Fraley said. “He’s at a very high risk of losing it based on what you’re showing me.”
When auditors return to the property this summer, they will likely remove Evans’ CAUV tax break entirely, she said.
Clermont County Water and Waste Director Robert Wildey, who has a college degree in agriculture and himself farms hay, has visited Evans’ Mt. Carmel Road property several times to investigate septic tanks.
“There’s no agriculture that I’m familiar with,” Wildey said. “It appears it was zoned for agricultural use and it is being used for commercial use.”
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 is large-lot single-family residential zoning,” Suder said. “Oftentimes estate residential zoning will allow for other low-intensity uses like agriculture … but it’s typically the kind of development you would see in rural areas or even large-lot areas in Indian Hill, for example, where they would have a minimum of five acres with a house and long driveway.”
Fraley said her employees questioned Union Township Zoning Director Cory Wright about whether the property was correctly zoned as estate residential.
“We did question them … ‘Did you realize that all of this building is going on there,’” Fraley said. “What they did was recite what they had (the property) on their books for … that’s when they told us it was an estate zoning.”
Wright did not respond to requests for an interview.
Union Township Administrator Ken Geis declined an on-camera interview but told WCPO that the zoning director’s opinion on the property “is consistent with estate residential zoning.” He declined to answer questions about that opinion.
If neighbors disagree with that zoning opinion, Geis said they have 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 hired a lawyer to send a complaint letter to the township, but said he can’t afford to fight Evans in court. He isn't taking the case to the board of zoning appeals because "I’ve decided that would be a waste of time" because it typically relies on its staff's recommendation and "in this case, that would be the opinion of Cory Wright."
Even if Gordon won with the appeals board, it could not rezone the property. That can only be done by the Union Township Board of Trustees and is unlikely to occur unless Evans requests the rezoning.
“The township generally takes the position that we don’t rezone property unless the property owner asks for the property to be rezoned,” Geis said.
This is an aerial view of 4370 Mt. Carmel Road before Evans purchased it in 2011, from the Clermont County auditor's office.
This is an aerial view of 4370 Mt. Carmel Road in 2018, from the Clermont County auditor's office, six years after Evans purchased it.
Geis has worked with the township since 1985 and said he doesn’t remember the board of trustees ever rezoning a property unless the owner had first requested the change.
“Some townships, depending on what the politics of the township are, do not want to wade into initiating a rezoning of someone’s property, so they will defer to the property owner to bring that petition to the township,” Suder said.
Rezoning often bring higher taxes, such as moving from agricultural to commercial, Suder said.
“That may be tolerable to the property owner, because they want to use it for a commercial use … so they will absorb that additional tax burden of doing so,” Suder said “But, generally speaking, folks are not going to rezone their property so that they pay more taxes.”
If the Mt. Carmel Road land were to be rezoned as commercial, Fraley said, the taxes would be considerably higher.
“It would be up significantly,” Fraley said, noting her office can set values on particular buildings as commercial use, but not the land or every building on the property.
“We don’t have any authority over the township," Fraley said. "They set their zoning."
WCPO obtained documents through a public records request that show Union Township officials approved 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.
But Gordon insists the buildings are 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.
When WCPO visited Gordon’s property, a sign for "Steel It" steel fabricator was visible on the side of a building on Evans’ land.
“Throughout the day the barns are getting deliveries, the Cintas truck is back there to get uniforms … the trash truck. The steel deliveries,” Gordon said. “There’s probably 100 cars in every day and 100 cars out. So that one-lane drive that you drove across to get to my house sees probably around 200 cars a day.”
But according to Peterson, Evans is doing nothing wrong.
“4370 Mt. Carmel Road lies in both Clermont County and Hamilton County; the portion in Hamilton is zoned industrial, and the tenants in the Clermont portion have been approved by Clermont County zoning officials,” Peterson wrote. “Evans does not draw zoning maps or make zoning decisions. There have been landscaping companies, concrete companies and service stations operating at 4370 Mt. Carmel dating back to the 1950s.”
Less than an acre of that parcel sits in Hamilton County, so it wouldn’t qualify for a CAUV in that county, according to a spokesman from the Hamilton County auditor’s office.
The heavy traffic on a one-lane gravel easement across Gordon's property to get to Evans’ land has him worried about the safety of his two children, who are 9 and 11. In the summertime, dust from the traffic covers his house.
“Evans has very little control over the volume of traffic," Peterson wrote. "We cannot dictate traffic patterns to our tenants. Mr. Gordon needs to understand that the shared easement is just that – shared. That means others have rights to it as well. We would be willing to work together … to improve it (e.g. paving) and make it safer for all.”
When Gordon complained to Union Township Administrator Ken Geis about the problem, “he told me at the time that I had basically two options and that was either to move or to fight it on my own legal dime.”
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 month, his attorney, Ben Dusing, played an hour-long video of supporters who spoke favorably about Evans.
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.”
Gordon has also brought his concerns to the Ohio EPA, which is currently investigating whether Evans installed a water basin and redirected a stream on the Mt. Carmel Road land.
“An Ohio EPA inspection found that fill material had been placed in at least three potential streams on-site,” said EPA spokeswoman Dina Pierce. “Ohio also forwarded the complaint to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a determination on any federal jurisdiction.”
When the EPA brought this to Evans’ attention, Peterson said, he hired an expert to assess the situation and if permits are needed, he will get them.
This is the second time the EPA has investigated in just over a year. It issued a violation against Mt. Carmel Farms LLC in August 2018 for installing sewage holding tanks without a permit.
After the company submitted a permit application including detailed plans for the tanks, the EPA resolved the violation and approved the plan. That EPA plan submitted by Evans Landscaping in October 2018 lists the type of establishments located on the property as "office” and “warehouse/shop,” with no mention of farming.
“How is this happening when it’s so blatantly clear to everyone else what’s happening, that they can just turn a blind eye?" Gordon asked.
But Peterson wrote that he has repeatedly reached out to Gordon “to find common ground for the betterment of both parties.”
“Instead (he) chooses to air his grievances by harassing our employees while they are working, harassing our tenants ... and sending letters to every government agency in the region complaining,” Peterson wrote. “Evans really tries to be a good neighbor and has a right to use and develop its property, too.”