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Jun
21
2024
Government

After eight years of serving as the Village Planning and Zoning Administrator, Denise Swinger, left, is retiring and turning the reins over to Meg Leatherman, who recently returned to her native Ohio after most recently working as the community development director for the seaside tourist town of Astoria, Oregon. (Photo by Reilly Dixon)

Planning and Zoning Administrator Swinger signs off

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When Denise Swinger was hired as the Village Planning and Zoning Administrator in 2015, Yellow Springs was entering into a new era of economic development.

A wave of fresh businesses was washing over town. Tourism was continually on the rise, and so too were the needs for additional housing and planning flexibility. The zoning code that had been substantially overhauled just two years before was being tested around every corner.

“That’s just how it worked out,” Swinger told the News earlier this week. “When I came on, there was so much happening around town.”

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Now, eight years and innumerable planning and zoning projects later, Swinger said her time has come to step down as a public servant. She is retiring later this month.

“I’m going to miss the work terribly, and I’ve loved working with all the people I’ve gotten to meet, but it’s time for some new energy to come in,” she said.

That energy is Meg Leatherman, who recently returned home to Ohio.

As Swinger’s newly hired successor, Leatherman comes to the Village with a master’s degree in city and regional planning and years of experience in planning, zoning and building. Most recently, she worked as community development director for the seaside tourist town of Astoria, Oregon, and prior to that, she was director of development services for Ada County in Idaho.

“I know what it’s like to work for a small place like Yellow Springs,” Leatherman said. “You have your hands in everything — touching all the different applications of the code, working with neighbors to resolve property issues, dealing with housing concerns, tourism, all of it.”

In speaking with the News, Leatherman noted the parallels between Yellow Springs and Astoria that she believes will make the transition into her role a bit easier. Though Astoria has a population of a little over 10,000 — about 6,000 more people than Yellow Springs — its zoning code, land use plan and applicability of both documents all have a great deal in common with those of Yellow Springs, she said.

And Leatherman’s no stranger to balancing economic development with local needs.

“Yellow Springs is special, and I think there are a lot of opportunities to keep it that way,” she said. “The goal is to hold onto the town’s uniqueness, its best qualities, while still growing in a sustainable way.”

Swinger believes Leatherman is well up to that task, though the biggest component of the work, Swinger said, entails dealing with not just the living document of the zoning code itself, but the people it impacts.

“That’s why I’ve loved my job so much — getting to meet and work alongside so many interesting people and personalities,” Swinger said.

At their core, planning and zoning are social services, Swinger believes. Whether it’s letting a realtor know about the zoning status of a property or helping residents move forward with their building projects, Swinger ultimately works to help local residents explore their options — that is, what can and can’t be done on their land.

“It’s all about the health, safety and welfare of the people,” she said. “Without zoning, things can be pretty chaotic.”

To that point, she referenced Houston, Texas, where the lack of a zoning code has led to skyscrapers blotting out the sun for neighboring single-story homes, and smoke from crematoriums wafting past nearby apartments.

“So, good zoning can really protect people,” Swinger said.

That fundamental pursuit of serving others has carried Swinger throughout her storied life.

In 1985, she and her husband, Joseph Giardullo, launched the humanitarian organization Society Taking Active Responsibility for International Self-Help, or STARFISH, to provide social, medical and economic services to communities in West Africa. After the pair moved to Yellow Springs in 1993 and forged local connections and relationships, STARFISH was eventually retooled into Yellow Springs Emergency Assistance to provide financial aid and utility assistance to villagers in need.

In 2001, Swinger was elected to Village Council after campaigning against then-proposed plans to sell and develop the Village-owned Glass Farm. The four years she served on Council were interesting, Swinger said, but marred by budgetary constraints that prevented the group from undertaking many significant municipal projects.

“When I look back on it, I really regret that we were so worried about money that we weren’t spending any,” Swinger said. “In hindsight, we could have eased in water and sewer rate [hikes]. We deferred maintenance and now, today, we see the results of that.”

The tenuous quality of the village’s infrastructure has been a continual thorn in Swinger’s side. She said it took her a while and a great deal of collaborating with other Village staffers to understand that not every inch of Yellow Springs is suitable for additional housing. As Public Works Director Johnnie Burns told Swinger, there’s only so much density the village’s infrastructure can support.

“I was initially like everyone else: ‘Yes! Let’s build more houses everywhere we can,’” she said. “But it didn’t take long for reality to set in.”

Still, Swinger has been instrumental in moving forward a number of major projects through the channels — residential and economic alike. Most recently she and Burns heralded the ongoing creation of the new Spring Meadows subdivision.

Following Swinger’s recommendations, the Village Planning Commission approved such major projects as the renovation of the Union Schoolhouse to accommodate WYSO’s studios and offices, construction at the former Miami Township Fire-Rescue to eventually house a comedy club, expansions at Cresco Labs and plenty more.

“I just always want to keep things moving,” Swinger said. “It’s all about timeliness from staff. People want to get moving on their projects, and it often starts with us.”

Swinger was also heavily involved in the plans to create a 144-unit neighborhood, then-owned by Oberer Land Developers. She and other Village staffers spent nearly two and a half years working with the Miamisburg-based company to carry out the plan, but ultimately, Village Council voted down rezoning the 52-acre property, and the land was purchased by a neighbor who was uninterested in developing it.

“Was it a bummer? Absolutely,” she said. “But you win some and you lose some.”

Leatherman agreed.

“That’s the thing about planning: it takes a while. You have to play the long game,” the new zoning and planning administrator said with a smile.

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