Judge issues injunction against Doug Evans for zoning violations; Union Twp. orders businesses to vacate – WCPO 9 Cincinnati
UNION TOWNSHIP, Ohio — A Clermont County judge and Union Township zoning officials are accusing Evans Landscaping owner Doug Evans of illegally operating businesses on Mt. Carmel Road land that is zoned for open space and agriculture.
The order, signed by Common Pleas Judge Kevin Miles on Oct. 4, gave Evans 30 days to close illegal tenant businesses, such as an auto repair shop and landscaping companies, that have been operating inside structures built to look like red barns.
The Union Township land is zoned as estate residential — which typically is a large lot with a bigger home, long driveway and perhaps a small accessory building like a pool house, said land use attorney Sean Suder, who has no ties to this case.
“It’s illegal and unpermitted … they’re not even supposed to have those buildings on the parcel,” said Jason Gordon, who is suing Evans and his holding company, Mt. Carmel Farms LLC, which owns the 4370 Mt. Carmel Road property next to his home.
When 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 Evans in 2012.
When Jason Gordon built a log cabin in 2005, he was surrounded by woods until Doug Evans moved next door.
Gordon claims Evans stripped thousands of trees to build an industrial park. Since then, he said more than 100 vehicles a day, including tractor trailers and dump trucks, drove by his house, often at high speeds, causing dust, noise and damage to his gravel easement.
A week after the judge’s order, Union Township also took action. A zoning inspector sent Evans a letter on Oct. 12 that his property was not in compliance.
“I found a total of 11 detached accessory buildings with nine of those structures being located in Union Township. There are no permits on file for any of those structures … there are no approvals or authorization for any of these unpermitted/illegal businesses, so they all must cease any/all activities and vacate the property,” wrote inspector Scott Burkey, who gave Evans until Oct. 27 to correct violations or face further legal action.
As of Thursday, Gordon said none of the tenants, which most recently included an auto repair shop and landscaping company, appear to have moved out, and several dumpsters and derelict vehicles are still on site.
“I just want my peace and quiet back,” Gordon said.
Nick Vehr, a spokesman for Evans, declined to comment, and wrote in an email to WCPO: “There isn’t anything that Doug or his attorney can add to the discussion as there is active or impending litigation.”
Evans, 60, is a well-known entrepreneur on the East Side who built a landscaping empire from a high school job hauling mulch from a pickup truck. He now employs 250 at operations that range from sand and gravel, equipment rental, snow removal, soil and firewood, ready-mix concrete, tree services and stone works.
Evans Landscaping owner Doug Evans walked into federal court on Tuesday ahead of his sentencing for minority contracting fraud,
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.
These zoning issues are the latest in a string of legal troubles for Evans.
Evans was released from prison last December after serving six months for minority contracting fraud, followed by several months of house arrest.
Last month, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced a $550,000 settlement with Evans to clean up illegal waste at three Evans Landscaping and gravel facilities near Newtown.
Yost sued Evans last March, at the request of Hamilton County and the Ohio EPA. County records show inspectors cited “reoccurring problems,” with the burial of waste, open dumping, scrap tires, illegal disposal of construction and demolition debris, and leachate runoff, at times into the Little Miami River.
Evans has not been charged with any crime related to Gordon’s complaints. For years Union Township officials repeatedly sided with Evans in this zoning dispute. That is until recently.
WCPO first reported on Gordon’s story in February 2020. Back then, Evans was enjoying a tax break and zoning exemptions that are meant for working farmers.
Evans applied and was approved for a Current Agricultural Use Valuation, or CAUV, with the Clermont County auditor’s office in 2012 soon after purchasing 4370 Mt. Carmel Road.
Judge and zoning officials say commercial businesses aren’t allowed on this Union Township land.
The CAUV program is meant to give large tax breaks to working farmers so they can afford to keep their land, said Suder, the former chief land use attorney for the City of Cincinnati.
When Evans reapplied for CAUV status in March 2018, 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 five acres for noncommercial woodland in 2017. The auditor approved that application.
But Gordon said he’s never seen any crops being grown on the property over the years.
After WCPO’s story aired in February 2020, Clermont County Auditor Linda Fraley stripped the CAUV tax break for the Mt. Carmel Road property and an adjoining five-acre parcel owned by Evans.
Her office sent a letter to Evans in October 2020 denying the 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, which more than doubled Evans’ taxes on the 11-acre parcel.
Neighbor Jason Gordon has been complaining about zoning issues since Doug Evans bought land next to him in 2012.
Separate from the CAUV tax break, Gordon said he also complained to Union Township officials for 10 years about why commercial buildings were being erected.
“Union Township just shut me down at every turn. They never came out and inspected it … They would just ignore and deny,” Gordon said.
In a January 2020 interview, Fraley said her employees questioned then 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 in 2020. “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, who left Union Township last March to become assistant city manager in Loveland, did not respond to a request for comment.
Former Union Township Administrator Ken Geis, who left in late 2021 and is now the Village of Batavia’s administrator, also did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2020, Geis told WCPO that Wright’s opinion on the property “is consistent with estate residential zoning.” He declined to answer questions about that opinion.
WCPO asked Geis about his relationship with Evans in that 2020 interview. 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 in January 2020, his then-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.”
WCPO asked Suder if it is unusual for a zoning department to change its mind on zoning complaints made against a property, as in the case of 4370 Mt. Carmel Road, when new officials are in charge.
“Well, I haven’t seen too many examples of that. Oftentimes, though, when you do have a change in administration … those decisions can be modified, can be changed,” Suder said. “And sometimes they’re completely opposite of the interpretation of the prior administration. So it does happen but generally we’re looking for consistency of decision making.”
Current Union Township Administrator Susan Ayers and Burkey, the current township zoning inspector who sent Evans the violation letter last month, both declined to comment.
“For 10 years Union Township has turned a blind eye to what’s an obvious zoning issue … and if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody,” Gordon said. “If the township is not going to do anything for you or the city where you live, then the only option is a legal one.”
The next step in Gordon’s lawsuit is a Nov. 18 conference in which attorneys are expected to set a trial date. Gordon is suing for damages, to take away Evans’ use of his gravel easement and to stop businesses from operating on Evans’ land.
In the meantime, Clermont County officials continue to investigate complaints at the Evans’ parcels near Mt. Carmel Road for clearing more than an acre of trees without a permit and rerouting a stream.
“The building department is aware of and is in the process of investigating the extent and severity of multiple potential building code and water management and sediment control violations. We are currently moving forward through the statutory and administrative enforcement process with hope and expectation that the potential violations will be remedied without delay,” said county spokesman Mike Boehmer.
Suder believes that in order for zoning rules to work effectively, they have to be enforced.
“We do have zoning rules and regulations for a reason, they protect all of the property owners, the adjacent property owners, the property values,” Suder said. “Some people don’t want to follow the rules and then it’s a matter of enforcement and whether anybody calls them out on it.”