COLUMBIA — With the balance on the Columbia City Council shifting toward a planned growth philosophy, tensions that have been building between city officials and the development community are coming to the forefront.
Developers in recent years have expressed frustration over lengthy public hearings on their proposals, micromanagement and inconsistency on the part of the council.
Don Stamper, executive director of the Central Missouri Development Council, said the situation is heating up.
“There’s far greater tension today on some of these issues than there’s ever been in our history,” Stamper said. “I actually think that the City Council is responsible for some of that tension.”
The election of Paul Sturtz as the new First Ward councilman certainly has the potential to influence the council’s approach to growth and development. Sturtz has been a harsh critic of sprawl and of some developments on the outskirts of the city, and he has made it clear he wants to make infill development and redevelopment of the central city a priority.
Bruce Beckett, a lawyer who frequently represents developers during council proceedings, said about Sturtz: “He’s a businessman himself. He should have some appreciation for the risk in any venture. I hope whatever he does is tempered with that.”
When listing their complaints about the city’s policies and procedures, the development community points to the City Council as the problem. Working through the city staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission also can take a long time and cost a lot of money, but from the developers’ point of view, those stages aren’t as frustrating or unpredictable as dealing with the council.
“In the public hearings, (council members) hear 10 or 15 minutes from the developer’s perspective,” Beckett said. “Then the council hears two, maybe three hours or more of passionate or heated criticism.”
Beckett represented Stadium 63 Properties on the recent Crosscreek Center proposal. The public hearing on a request to change the Crosscreek development plan to allow an automobile dealership spanned seven hours over two council meetings. The council tabled the request once, then finally rejected it at the second council meeting after a public outcry.
Public comment has its place, but often each proposal has multiple public hearings at various levels, leading to a longer, more repetitive process, Beckett said, and “time is money.”
The lengthy process is one reason it costs more to build in Columbia than it does in other cities.
“It’s substantially more expensive,” Craig Van Matre, a local development attorney, said. “It tilts the playing field in favor of developers with more money.”
The city’s process favors developers who have more capital up front, Van Matre said. Smaller developers can’t invest in a proposal that they are uncertain will win the council’s approval, he said. That’s where the council’s lack of consistency becomes a factor.
Developers across the board said they’ve become frustrated with the council because they never know what it’s thinking. A proposal can meet all the standards established by ordinances, and yet the council might still reject it, Beckett said. There is no way to gauge whether a proposal will satisfy council members.
“There are no rules to play by,” Beckett said. “You keep trying to hit a moving target.”
Stamper agreed, saying that often the amount of public attention a development proposal brings will dictate whether it will move through quickly or not.
“We will spend nine hours debating one zoning request,” he said. “We will have so much repetition it’s not even funny, and then a similar request will come after it, and it takes 27 minutes. That’s not fair, and it’s not balanced.”
Stamper cited “the Beck era,” the 20-plus years when Ray Beck was city manager from 1985 to 2006, as a time of much greater consistency. Developers could expect approval if they adhered to explicit standards.
A major factor in the amount of public attention a proposal gets, Stamper said, is whether the location is north or south of Interstate 70. He argued that any project south of the highway draws more public comment, which makes infill development automatically more contentious.
A primary component of “smart growth” plans, infill development refers to construction inside city limits where infrastructure is in place.
Not only does the council have different standards for different proposals, developers charge, but it also doesn’t give recommendations from city staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission as much credit as it should, Van Matre said. Instead, council members get bogged down in details, such as landscaping plans, that should have been handled previously.
“The City Council second guesses the staff,” Van Matre said. “In Columbia, the City Council mixes up the question of whether it’s going to occur with how it’s going to happen.”
Overturning a staff recommendation, Stamper said, means going against the opinions of professionals who are trained in planning.
“I really think it should take a super-majority vote (or a vote of 5-2) of the council to overrule a staff recommendation,” Stamper said.
Beckett proposed other process changes, mainly strategies that would reduce the length of council proceedings.
“I favor limiting the debate in time and requiring that a lot of public comment be given in black and white on a piece of paper,” Beckett said. He also argued that neighborhood arguments in written form would decrease the amount of passion and contention in public hearings. Passion overly influences too many council decisions, he said.
Although members of the City Council share some of the gripes about lengthy proceedings and micromanagement of development proposals, they also have complaints of their own about the development community. In recent hearings, developers have come under fire for failing to work enough with neighborhood associations. In the Crosscreek proceedings specifically, council members cited a lack of cooperation with neighbors as a factor in their decision to reject the proposal.
Beckett defended the usual practices of the developers. Though every project is different, he said, most make efforts to include concerned groups.
“I think the development community around here is pretty good about that,” Beckett said. “Most all of them have numerous meetings with neighbors that have valid concerns about a project. The developers may need to try and communicate with the neighborhoods earlier, but many times the process doesn’t allow that.”
Though the groups might be frustrated with each other, they agree that the planning and zoning process would benefit from changes. Council members have named the 2006 Process and Procedures Stakeholders Committee report as a starting point for ideas. Both Van Matre and Stamper were on the stakeholders committee and said they would like to see some parts of it implemented.
“I think what we have right now is severely flawed,” Stamper said. “Ultimately what the development community wants is a process that is predictable, that is efficient.”
This is the second in a series of four articles about development in Columbia.
Missourian reporter Rachel Heaton contributed to this story.