Man’s development fight yields 150-acre preserve

First Posted: 1/4/2015

MILFORD (AP) — Driving through Milford’s Valley View Nature Preserve in his pickup, Chris Habel points out the exciting things happening: developing wetlands, community gardens, a new hops operation, barns from the 1800s that are being restored.

The tough early years are now in his rearview mirror.

Twelve years ago, Habel had been a stranger — not even a Milford resident — when he opened his mouth at a city council meeting and suggested a plan to save 150 acres, including some of his wife’s ancestral farm land, from becoming a subdivision.

Ultimately, he would convince many of his plan, take on a $2.5 million burden and overcome even his own doubts, as he fought for land that contains an extraordinary concentration of prehistoric sites and was settled by some of Milford’s most influential families.

Today, instead of a subdivision, the property located just outside of downtown Milford is open and free to the public. It attracts hikers and cross-country skiers. And it has become a place for community, hosting cross-country meets and offering haunted hayrides in the fall.

“Now my kids have a 150-acre backyard,” said Andy Dickerson, vice president of the board of directors for the Valley View Foundation, which Habel organized and now owns the property.

“You think about Ault Park and Alms Park” in Cincinnati, Habel said. “People … were smart enough to say there are some places that need to stay, and that’s kind of what this ended up becoming.”

Today there’s even more good news: Valley View recently secured a grant to buy an adjacent 37 acres known as Arrowhead Farm, the home of Milford’s founding family.

For thousands of years Native Americans traveled up and down the region’s rivers, including the East Fork Little Miami River, Valley View’s western border. The branch meets the Little Miami River just south of the preserve and empties into the Ohio River another 9 miles downstream.

Valley View was the equivalent of a “very busy highway interchange,” said Habel, an environmental attorney from Mt. Lookout. A cultural assessment and archaeological digs have uncovered signs of ancient life dating to 10,000 B.C.

Back in 2002, Milford School Board was looking for land to build a new school. Habel lobbied the district to buy the land from a developer and then sell what it didn’t need to the city. With some persuasion he convinced the city to sell the land to the Valley View Foundation in a deal that required Habel’s group to cover the $70,000 interest payment each year, until it could buy the property outright.

The foundation managed to raise the money for the first couple years. By the third, it came up short.

“I wrote a check on my home equity line for a large sum of money — which I don’t recommend,” Habel said, recalling many sleepless nights. “But that saved it … It was worth it. I made it back in intangible benefits.”

Habel folded the historical relevance, environmental benefits, recreational and educational value into applications to secure grants and private funding.

The first years were hard, but over the years, Valley View won three Clean Ohio Fund grants and a grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency totaling more than $2 million. Local foundations and donors, including Louis and Louise Nippert Charitable Foundation and Greater Cincinnati Foundation, tacked on about $500,000.

“You name it, we knocked on their door,” said Habel, who currently works for the law firm Frost Brown Todd.

Dickerson, an environmental consultant who moved to Milford years ago to be in a natural setting, met Habel at an early meeting where he and others who opposed construction on the flood plain.

“With his professionalism and legal background, he knew in advance what we could do,” Dickerson said. “Without Chris we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Milford City Manager Jeff Wright said it’s one of the few examples in his experience managing a municipality where “things turned out 100 percent as planned.”

“They have bought all of it from the city. We hold no debt,” Wright said. “They lived up to their pledge.”

It’s 26 degrees on a sunny day at Valley View on one of the last mornings of 2014. Several folks are out walking its paths, many pulled along by their canine companions.

There’s a surprise around each turn; a community garden that now includes a vineyard, the hop field with a $40,000 hop picker from Poland, a “bat condominium” and bee hives.

Trails weave through dense forest and down into a plain being restored to native prairies and wetlands.

The foundation’s mission is “Conserve the land, preserve its history and share it with the community,” Habel said, but his personal mantra has become “go big or go home.”

He’s spent thousands of volunteer hours: planting trees to stop erosion, plowing the garden, restoring the old barns with his son and father-in-law, sweating over finances and poring over legal paperwork.

Many other volunteers, including scout troops, have made Valley View possible.

But his visions for the property seem endless. They’re now talking to local breweries about buying Valley View’s hops and the old dairy barn would be a perfect setting one day for a hoe down or wedding, Habel said.

Once the Arrowhead Farm sale is finalized, the foundation will become responsible for a historic farmhouse, built from 1810 to 1820 by the former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, John Pollock.

Habel can’t wait to offer educational programs there and large community events on the front lawn — maybe even a hops festival, Habel said. Milford Pottery, home and studio of Cathy Gatch, a descendant of the city’s founding family, will continue operating on the property.

“It will make this whole property more a part of Milford, like it used to be,” Gatch said.

Finally, Habel thinks Valley View has done it.

“It’s not going to go anywhere,” Habel said. “It’s not going to be destroyed.”

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