COLUMBIA — For neighbors, unlike other stakeholders, the issues surrounding planning and development are intensely personal and emotional. That’s because many of the most controversial developments in Columbia are happening in their own backyards.
Neighbors share some common ground with developers and the people who represent them. They believe that many aspects of the city planning process are broken and that city government needs more of an overarching plan to guide development, for example.
Despite some areas of agreement, many are frustrated with what they see as an arrogant attitude on the part of the developers. They often distrust the people who want to build near their homes and feel they’re at a disadvantage when fighting those with deep pocketbooks.
The most recent example of the tension between neighbors and developers came during the dispute over the Crosscreek Center proposal. The City Council, after hours of negative feedback from neighbors, ultimately rejected the developers’ request that they be allowed to put a car dealership on land at the eastern end of Stadium Boulevard. The council, in denying the proposal, directed the developers to seek more neighborhood input.
Many citizens count the Crosscreek vote as a victory for neighbors, establishing them as a group that deserves more credibility. But it’s certainly not the first time that neighbors have gone up against a developer. Julie Youmans, president of the Grindstone/Rock Quarry Neighborhood Association, said the lessons learned during every development dispute are important to neighborhoods, which usually have only one shot at making a difference in their areas.
“Once our street has been changed and overhauled, the issue is over for us,” Youmans said. “We’re not professional planners, so we don’t get to use what we learned on the next project. This is the project.”
When Allen Hahn, chairman of the Woodridge Neighborhood Association, talks about the developers of the Silver Oak Senior Living Center, he uses language that emphasizes the developer’s plans are only promises. The plan calls for four buildings altogether — two medical centers, an assisted living center and a building of apartments for seniors — on 11.25 acres of forest land.
Hahn’s neighborhood has had sour relationships with developers. On a street east of the neighborhood, new duplexes with fresh tan siding pop up behind the back yards of long-term residents. In a neighborhood where many can’t see their neighbors’ homes through the dense tree cover, Hahn points to the scattering of trees behind the duplexes as evidence of the area’s problems with development.
“They really haven’t been very sensitive to the neighborhood at all, and they have not finished with what they were supposed to do as far as screening is concerned,” Hahn said of the people building the duplexes. “That is still an issue, and we are still working with the city on that.”
The relationship between the Woodridge Neighborhood Association and the Oklahoma-based developers of Silver Oaks has mostly been smooth. They’ve held numerous meetings, and many of the neighbors’ wishes have been incorporated into the plan. Changes included moving the assisted living building farther back from the property line and preserving as many trees as possible by placing part of the forest in a trust with the city.
But, because of the past experience with the duplexes, Hahn said he still can’t bring himself to fully trust the developers. So last week when the Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the Silver Oaks plan and rezoning request, Hahn said he reluctantly agreed.
“The letter of intent, which they have submitted, includes everything that we have asked them to do,” Hahn said. “This is why we’re cautiously optimistic. ... They said when they first met with us: ‘We want to be good neighbors.’”
Although Hahn would prefer to see the forest remain, he recognizes that Silver Oaks might be the best his neighborhood can get.
“It would be easy to be a naysayer. But something’s going to go in there,” Hahn said. “It’s zoned R-1 at the moment, but they could put up to 30 single family homes in there, and I don’t think we’d like what would go in there in single-family homes.”
It was first impressions that drove Terry Baker to take action against plans for the new Wal-Mart on West Broadway several years ago. She wasn’t sure the developers had the neighborhood’s interests at heart. She found them arrogant and dismissive of neighbors’ concerns.
“I can remember (the developer) saying ‘I know you all want to continue to see the deer and the turkey walking in the field, but that’s just not going to happen,” Baker said.
So Baker wrote a letter to the editor to the Columbia Daily Tribune. Before she knew it, people began calling her. After a meeting of concerned neighbors, Baker found herself the president of Community First, the organization formed to oppose the Wal-Mart proposal.
Baker, who describes the relationship between Community First and the developer as “contentious,” said that although fighting the development was hard, it was well worth it. Though the Wal-Mart now stands at the corner of West Broadway and Fairview Road, she is pleased, for the most part, with the results.
“I don’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful addition to our neighborhood.’ I look at it say, ‘I’m so glad we did all of this work,’” Baker said. “Because it looks good and it has the minimal amount of the impact on the neighborhood that we can ask for.”
Although Community First failed to get the Wal-Mart relocated, they won several concessions. Both Baker and Community First treasurer DeAnna Walkenbach feel the neighbors influenced the development.
“It didn’t have as much landscaping as it does now. It was going to have a gas station, and we told them we didn’t want the gas station,” Walkenbach said. “We got the size of the development down. We told them we didn’t want any RV parking and we didn’t want any outdoor sales, so they couldn’t have their garden stuff outside.”
History of controversy
Former Third Ward City Councilman Bob Hutton said before his recent experience opposing the Landmark Acute Care Hospital slated for Old 63, he never recognized the disadvantages neighborhoods have in dealing with developers.
“(Developers) have lawyers, they have PR people, they have engineers,” Hutton said. “They have all this paid staff, and here a little neighborhood is just working with volunteers. So a neighborhood like ours, that is opposed to a development, is really at a disadvantage if the developer wants to spend the money.”
Hutton’s neighborhood, Country Club Estates, has experience. Eighteen years ago they got tangled in a dispute over a landowner’s request to rezone land for commercial use.
“He didn’t make any friends,” Hutton said, adding that the experience affected neighbors’ reaction to the Landmark proposal, which came from the children of the man who stirred the controversy in 1990.
“A lot of the neighbors entered into it remembering 1990, and it was not a good relationship,” Hutton said. “So the relationship was kind of skewed from the get-go because of that.”
Hutton remains upset by the council’s approval of the Landmark plan. He thinks increased input from both sides before the public hearing played a role in the vote.
“We hammered them, but we weren’t hammering them near as hard as the proponents were hammering them,” Hutton said. He cited a campaign by the Chamber of Commerce and a newspaper ad encouraging people to call their council representatives as evidence of the strong-arm lobbying “that’s unheard of.”
More input may become the norm, Hutton predicted, noting that the council’s rejection of the Crosscreek plan might have contributed to the flurry of input in the Landmark case.
Power in numbers
Most successful opposition to development over time has come from organized groups.
Hank Ottinger, chairman of the recently founded Old Southwest Neighborhood Association, said he sees a trend in Columbia toward formal organization in neighborhoods. Without associations, he said, neighborhoods are less able to engage.
“The neighborhoods that don’t have an official association, they may hear about the development, they may not,” Ottinger said, noting that neighborhoods with associations can register with the city and receive direct notices of proceedings on rezoning requests and developments.
Neighborhood associations not only lend more weight to residents’ opinions, they also can make it easier to navigate the complexities of planning and development.
However, Youmans said, at times it is hard to get residents to partake in the process because they feel their opinions are not being heard.
Neighbors have expressed the sentiment that “there is just nothing you can do in terms of being a regular resident,” she said. “There is nothing you can do to stand up to the developers when they come in.”
Neighbors agree being involved in the process is difficult.
“It is a lot of work,” Baker said. “It should be easier, because, again, we live here.”
Although individual neighborhood associations are a start, some activists are beginning to think a larger organization of neighborhoods might put them on a level playing field with developers, who are represented by the Central Missouri Development Council.
“At the moment there’s no analogous organization to the (development council), although we have given thought to a neighborhood council,” said Hahn, chairman of the Woodridge Neighborhood Association.
Calling for change
At its last meeting, the City Council took steps toward revising the city’s process of considering development requests. After discussing the suggestions laid out in the 2006 Process and Procedures Stakeholders Committee report, Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade formally introduced a plan for implementing three of the report’s suggestions at the May 5 council meeting.
The plan focuses on increasing public capacity to participate, exploring mediation as an option for the community and eliminating redundant public hearings. The council set target completion dates for each item and hopes to have the whole thing wrapped up by the fall.
Neighbors, though, have their own suggestions for how the city might improve the planning process.
“Nobody knows what page anybody’s on,” said Community First treasurer Walkenbach. “That is the key problem, that everything is decided on a case-by-case basis because we don’t have a comprehensive development plan.”
Baker, past president of Community First, feels that adding to the conflict between neighbors and developers is a back-and-forth game of “he-said, she-said.” She suggested mediation as an option that would help communication between both sides.
“I think if the city sponsors mediation, and that is someone who is obviously a neutral party who’s to sit down with the neighborhood group and developers, in a sense it keeps them both honest,” Baker said.
As a liaison for community members, as well as a city employee who sees the planning and development process firsthand, neighborhood specialist Bill Cantin said he understands the complaints of both neighbors and developers. He said the two groups are often at odds, but he thinks there is common ground.
“The developers will say the city is too hard on them; neighbors will say the city is too easy on them,” Cantin said.
He said if the city made more efforts to educate and communicate with both groups, the process might be less contentious. Eliminating tension is something all the stakeholders see as important. They agree the time for change is now.
“I think this is a ripe time for the residents of Columbia to get together and say, ‘We know there’s going to be development, but let’s make it the right plan,’” Hahn said.