On an evening when the Licking County Planning Commission approved a proposal to build five houses on 44 acres in rural Union Township, a staff member presented a plan that would help reduce the cost of roads and bridges in the future: Build up rather than out, and move away from the type of sprawling development the commission had just approved.

In presenting what he said was a first-of-its-kind transportation plan update built on significant input from residents over nearly two years, Matt Hill, technical study director for the Licking County Area Transportation Study office, described a holistic approach to mapping transportation in the county for the next 25 years.

Matt Hill, Matt Hill, technical study director for the Licking County Area Transportation Study office, explains the benefits of the county’s new transportation plan during a May 20 county planning commission meeting. Credit: Alan Miller

And because of that approach, the recommendations in the 148-page “LaunchLCA” plan go far beyond roads and bridges to include bike paths, public transportation and suggestions that the rapidly growing county should focus development in urbanized areas rather than planting houses every five to 10 acres of land in the country.

“What we’ve done in the past 40 years – if we continue that in the next 20 years, we will have failed,” Hill said during the May 20 planning commission meeting.

Farmland preservation should be a factor in future plans, Hill said. And the timing is right for a change in direction for development, he said, because more people are working from home than in the past, and the millennial generation, generally speaking, is less interested in driving and more interested in living in urban areas rather than the suburbs or rural areas.

As an example of the shift away from cars, he said the relatively new fixed-route bus lines through Newark and connecting to Granville are growing in popularity, with about 11,000 riders so far this year.

Specifically, he said, the 22-month process to develop the plan resulted in recommendations that consider the needs of people with disabilities and without their own vehicles – people who could be more productive in society if they can work from home or have easy access to transportation or to paths to walk or ride a bicycle to work.

The study quoted the recent report by the United Way of Licking County that showed that 37% of Licking County households live one flat tire away from financial disaster, which means they have little to spend on transportation, so easy access to public transportation, and walking and bicycling paths, would help them.

Another key point, Hill said, is that new housing in Licking County should include tall buildings in more densely populated areas.

The six-story office building on N. 3rd Street in downtown Newark is an example of what taller buildings could look like in Licking County.

“It couldn’t hurt for Newark, Heath and Buckeye Lake to have six- to 10-story housing,” Hill said, noting that those are places where ample roads and other infrastructure already exist.

He said that shifting housing away from rural areas to urban areas would reduce the combined travel time for residents by more than 13,000 hours daily, reduce pollution and save the average auto owner $875 per year.

“Across 81,762 households, that’s $71,541,740 in savings,” Hill said. “That’s phenomenal.”

When squaring that up with the projected Licking County Area Transportation Study spending of $164 million in public dollars for transportation projects in the county, Hill said the taxpayers would see a return on their investment in less than three years.

The Licking County plan includes the villages of Buckeye Lake and Millersport, but not Pataskala or the portion of New Albany that is in Licking County because they are part of the Columbus-area plan. The plan is built on a projected population growth of 50,000 in the next 25 years, which is an additional population about the size of the county seat of Newark, currently home to about 51,000 people.

Hill made clear to planning commission members that the county planning office does not have the authority to tell any jurisdiction in the county to follow the recommendations in the plan, and that they can happen only through comprehensive planning by cities, villages and townships. 

After hearing Hill’s presentation of the LaunchLCA plan, Tim Bubb, who is a county commissioner and member of the planning commission, said it was the first time he could remember the commission hearing such a forward-thinking plan.

“We spend a lot of time talking about driveway access and little nitpicking things, but this is what we need to be doing so people 20 years from now aren’t cleaning up a mess,” Bubb said. “If we’re going to stuff another 79,000 people in this county, there will be density.”

Planning Commission member Haley Feightner called the plan “fantastic,” and said that it fits with the Framework Initiative, led by the Thomas J. Evans Foundation last year to hear from residents and other stakeholders about what they want in the future and how best to manage growth in fast-growing western Licking County.

The transportation plan builds on a water and sewer plan by the county in 2023, and a thoroughfare plan that was released a few weeks before the transportation plan in May 2024. The thoroughfare plan focuses on county and township roads – not state and federal highways – and how they should be built or modified to accommodate traffic flows. It has focused, for example, on traffic congestion in the heart of Johnstown, where left-turn lanes were too short and traffic backed up for miles at times. Some modifications have already been made there, and the plan recommends additional work in the future to reduce congestion and accidents. 

The new Thornwood Crossing bridge over Raccoon Creek will help alleviate congestion where Granville, Newark and Heath come together. Credit: Alan Miller

“We did these three plans one after the other because they inform each other,” Hill said.

The various development and transportation plans all came after Intel announced plans in January 2022 to build a $28 billion computer-chip manufacturing campus just south of Johnstown in what is now part of New Albany. That complex and related development on 3,000 acres of what was mostly farmland is dramatically changing the landscape, economy and way of life in Licking County.

Jay Fisher, assistant planning manager and special projects planner for the Licking County Planning and Development office, said the office picked a consultant for the thoroughfare plan in November 2021 and set the goals for the consultant, “and we got word two and a half months later that Intel was coming. The consultant called us after that and said, ‘We’re guessing you want to change the goals.’”

The Intel announcement that is anticipated to bring 7,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs – along with additional jobs with Intel suppliers and other companies building in western Licking County – changed everything for those working on the thoroughfare and transportation plans.

The thoroughfare plan warns that “without proactive leadership to help finance and direct where proposed travel corridors and intersection improvements should be located, piecemeal development and a patchwork of ‘temporarily permanent’ improvements will become the norm, and dramatically pick up pace over the next year – as we get closer to the opening of Intel

and as interest rate increases slow or even reverse course. As seen in areas across the

Ohio and the nation, the resulting sprawl reduces quality of life, travel conditions, and

will likely strain public services and general revenue funds.”

Alan Miller writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.

Alan Miller

Alan Miller teaches journalism and writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University's Journalism Program. He is the former executive editor of The Columbus Dispatch and former Regional Editor for Gannett's 21-newsroom USAToday Network Ohio.