COLUMBIA — In 2006, before his election to the Columbia City Council, Karl Skala established a goal during a conversation with a Missourian reporter.
“We have our eyes on the prize,” he said, “and the prize is four council seats.”
Skala was referring to a push among a faction of Columbia residents to get a stronger smart-growth presence on the council.
“Smart growth really means growth, but it’s targeted growth where we already have infrastructure,” Skala said during an interview Sunday.
Skala’s 2006 statement came after the election of Sixth Ward councilwoman Barbara Hoppe, an environmentalist concerned about energy efficiency, water quality and conservation. Since then, three other council members have been elected on platforms that included smart-growth initiatives. Skala now serves as the Third Ward councilman. Jerry Wade, the Fourth Ward representative and former chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, favors well-planned development. Paul Sturtz, who was sworn in as the new First Ward councilman Monday night, is also a smart-growth advocate who is uneasy about development on the urban fringe.
Skala’s statement of two years ago has come to fruition. Smart growth is more a priority for Sturtz than it was for former First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton. With the election of Sturtz, there are now four council members who have placed development issues at the forefront.
Skala said Sturtz will influence council policies in terms of development.
“Policy decisions and visioning is essentially a matter of majority on the council,” Skala said. “It will pave the way, to some degree, for a different vision.”
Mayor Darwin Hindman said Sturtz’s presence on the council might spur developers to present more thoughtful proposals.
“It will improve development to some degree in that they will have to offer good developments in order to get through,” Hindman said. “(Sturtz’s) election emphasizes community concern about development.”
Development strategies that Sturtz supports include infill development that takes place inside existing city boundaries, mixed-use structures, development in the First Ward and environmentally sound practices.
“I’m probably the most passionate person in terms of downtown and central-city development,” Sturtz said. “I’m all for more people and more density and more development. It’s just that I don’t think we can afford to do it on the urban fringe.”
Wade said he thinks that Sturtz will help move development policy higher up on the council’s agenda “because it adds a council person who is vitally interested in the question of development policy and what the council should do.”
Although it’s possible that contentious development proposals with environmental undertones could produce 4-3 votes, most council members noted that individual votes usually are decided on specific issues rather than general feelings about growth.
“I do think he’ll make a difference,” Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku said of Sturtz. “Every vote makes a difference. There might be situations where he’s in the majority and he’s the deciding vote.”
But Janku also noted that the council passes or rejects many development proposals by wide margins.
Janku said Sturtz might make decisions different from those Crayton would make in similar situations.
Sturtz said he doesn’t think he will always be the swing vote on development. He sees the need for growth in Columbia; he just wants it to be the right kind of growth.
“I don’t think I can be typecast as anti-development,” he said. “I actually think that Columbia’s potential as a business center is unlimited. I don’t want to fritter away our natural resources while we’re doing it. I want it to be efficient growth.”
Even before Sturtz’s election, the perception of a need for changes in development policy was on the council’s radar. After the council turned down the contentious Crosscreek Center proposal, members voiced concern over a process that often causes them to get bogged down in the details of planned commercial developments. The Crosscreek proposal sought the addition of a car dealership to other commercial uses that had already been approved for property at Stadium Boulevard and U.S. 63.
“We have been molded into this reactionary body,” Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said. “Right now, the council is the micro-manager of every C-P plan that comes up. I feel the council should spend more time on legislative problems rather than components of developments.”
Wade agreed. “The issues and problems with Crosscreek highlighted the need (for change) as well as we will ever have it highlighted.”
Efforts to streamline the review of development proposals most likely will start with the implementation of a 2006 Process and Procedures Stakeholders Committee report, several council members said. The plan suggested changes such as creating distinctions between “simple” and “complex” proposals.
“What the proposition does is completely revise the system and change the role and responsibility of all the key parties, and (it) hopefully will be one step in getting the council out of the business of negotiating the design of every project,” Wade said.
Janku sees value in the report’s goal of refining the process of notifying stakeholders about upcoming public hearings.
“We can certainly formalize the notification process to specify how notification of the neighbors and initial discussion should be structured,” he said. “And that will hopefully avoid the situation where the neighbors learn at the last minute and feel they don’t have the ability to influence decisions.”
Nauser said implementing the proposal, which will be the subject of an April 23 work session, will make the process more transparent.
Wade would also like to see city government update zoning ordinances and implement growth-management planning. Currently, both the city and county planning commissions are moving in this direction with joint efforts to create sub-area plans. The most recent example is the plan for land around the new high school site off St. Charles Road; the sub-area plan examines the existing infrastructure, lays out what improvements will be necessary and outlines how the commissions would like to see the land used.
Sturtz would like to expand pre-emptive efforts like these. A vote at the next meeting, concerning a long-term acute care hospital on Old 63, presents an opportunity to talk about sub-area planning, he said.
“This is the kind of thing that needs to happen all over the city,” Sturtz said. “It’s a shame we’re not further ahead of the curve.”
Sturtz favors the small hospital but believes a long-term growth plan would help the council make an informed decision.
“How does that fit in with the big picture?” he said. “Right now, I don’t think anyone can tell me how that fits into the big picture.”
Hoppe said she looks forward to working with someone she feels is on her side when it comes to development.
“Paul will be a great addition to help further these goals. I know he is interested in these same areas and has a concern for the entire community, as well as the First Ward,” Hoppe said. “I look forward to talking with him further about what we have been doing and what we can do in coming years to continue and further these efforts.”
This is the first of a four-part weekly series on the issues of growth, development and planning in the city of Columbia.