COLUMBIA — Angry neighborhood associations. Seven-hour City Council meetings. Frustrated developers and delayed building projects. It all adds up to a development process that many think no longer works for Columbia. But the city is finally moving ahead with some remedies.
The 2006 Process and Procedures Stakeholders Report, facilitated by Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade while he was chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, sought to address problems with the city’s planning and development process. Now, two years later, the council, along with the Planning and Development Department and the Planning and Zoning Commission, is acting on some of the report’s recommendations.
At an April work session, the City Council identified three main areas from the report to consider and implement: Increasing public notice of development projects, exploring a mediation option for contentious developments and eliminating duplicate zoning and development hearings.
Why is it only now that the council is looking at making changes?
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala responded with only two words: “Four votes.”
Wade explained further that the election of him and Skala, also a former planning commissioner, helped change the council’s dynamics.
“The council prior to a year ago was lukewarm to the idea of beginning to shift the way some of those decisions are made at the council level,” Wade said. “Because of the changes in the council in the election of 2007, there is now a lot of interest in moving forward with the stakeholders’ report.”
Wade said the council needed to address other issues in the past year before seriously considering changes in planning and development procedures. But he hopes to get many of the proposals implemented by the fall, so the city is working aggressively on them this summer.
Planning and Development Director Tim Teddy said that although it’s taken a while to get traction, the April work session was a “breakthrough.” His department has already taken initial steps.
Planning and Development now holds public information meetings when new development proposals are received; two have been held thus far. Teddy also completed a report at the end of May recommending an ordinance that would make “neighborhood meetings” between developers and residents an official part of the zoning review process.
The main project for the summer, however, is to look at ways to reduce the number of public hearings required for a development proposal. Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Jeff Barrow said the commission hopes to be finished by July 10 with a draft ordinance calling for its recommendations to be placed directly onto the City Council’s consent agenda, where they would not be subject to further debate and hearings.
Barrow said the commission also is drafting an ordinance that would require that commercial developers’ statements of intent — documents that explain the precise nature of a development — define the criteria for every lot that would be part of the project. That would allow a single public hearing to address the overall development plan rather than splitting it into multiple hearings on each lot, Wade said.
While it’s a very aggressive schedule, the commission is meeting the deadlines proposed in the April work session and expects to have a first draft of the second ordinance by early August, Barrow said.
Skala said that because Columbia is now a city approaching 100,000 people, it’s time to revisit its planning and zoning ordinances.
“There are so many things that have to be put into place,” Skala said. “You can’t do it all at once, but you can’t wait on doing it either.”
Wade, who said his commitment to changing the planning process was one of the primary reasons he ran for the City Council, thinks it must be overhauled rather than tweaked.
“We are no longer a small or medium-sized town; we’re a small urban area,” Wade said. “The way things have worked in the past won’t work anymore. We need to modernize.”
Wade said inefficiency at the council level can be alleviated by delegating more responsibility to the Planning and Zoning Commission and city staff.
The current system reduces the significance of the commission because developers don’t have to worry about how it votes, he said. Instead, they use commission hearings to learn what they must change to win City Council approval. The result is that neighborhood residents don’t know whether the proposal they see at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting is the one they’re going to see at the council meeting, Wade said.
“What goes before the Planning and Zoning Commission should be the proposal that comes before council with rare exceptions of significant changes,” he said.
Don Stamper, executive director of the Central Missouri Development Council and a member of the Process and Procedures Stakeholder Group, said he is skeptical that the council would be willing to give up some of its authority and stop micromanaging development proposals.
“On one hand, members of the council will talk about efficiency, but on the other hand their actions are inefficient,” he said.
But Wade is committed to implementing the full Process and Procedures report in order to streamline the process and make it fair for all parties, even if that means shifting around some of the responsibility.
“There are some that think that the council is giving away its responsibility,” Wade said. “My attitude is that’s the council putting the responsibility where it should be. That way the council can focus on its responsibility: policy.”