Activists planning to form neighborhood advocacy group

Monday, July 7, 2008 | 6:25 p.m. CDT; updated 8:26 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — As the city works to create a more transparent and accessible development process, local activists are planning to create a group to aid neighborhoods and residents affected by new developments.

DeAnna Walkenbach and Tracy Greever-Rice are in the early stages of forming a neighborhood advocacy group they say is needed to even the scales between developers and residents affected by new projects.

“We just feel like regular people need to have a voice,” Walkenbach said. “And we need a voice that’s recognized.”

Walkenbach hopes to have the group up and running in six months. Although nothing is definite, they are considering becoming a subcommittee of the Boone County Smart Growth Coalition and have attended some of that group’s meetings. But because they want their group to be a nonprofit, they are still “on the fence” about being part of a larger group, Walkenbach said.

Walkenbach and Greever-Rice envision their group as a counter to the Central Missouri Development Council, which lobbies the council from a development perspective. Because the development community has an organized, recognized voice, neighborhoods need a similar voice, both at the government level and at the mediation stage, the two women say.

“Mediation goes on on an ad hoc basis,” Greever-Rice said. “It tends to be very one-sided. Typically, there’s one group that has lots and lots of resources and lots invested, and the other group is just sort of coming together to deal with this particular issue.”

The two are adamant that they are not against development, nor are they out to disagree with the development council on every issue. Rather, Walkenbach sees the group as a lobby for high-quality, sustainable development that will benefit everyone.

“Basically what we want to do is get the best possible development,” Walkenbach said. “What neighborhoods need to realize is they need to use some bargaining chips to get the best development they can get.”

Greever-Rice and Walkenbach are looking for models in other communities to guide their group. They hope they can educate neighborhood associations about development, keep an eye on upcoming projects to inform affected residents earlier and maybe even find some pro bono attorney work for neighborhoods.

“This perspective needs to be taken into account as part of an overall, long-range planning process that is enforceable,” Greever-Rice said.

Funding is another hurdle. While they are exploring grants, most need to be matched locally, Greever-Rice said. Right now, all the options are on the table for finding a funding source that can sustain the group.

“It’s going to have to be self-supporting, and quickly,” Greever-Rice said. “I think there will be a lot of work into getting it going, but I don’t think finding sufficient local funding is going to be a huge ordeal. There are thousands and thousands of citizens that know they need this voice.”

As the pair works to get the new group going, the city is looking into adding a step to its development process requiring developers to meet with neighborhood residents.

Planning and Development Director Tim Teddy submitted a report to the City Council in late May examining other communities that have such a meeting and recommending Columbia also add a similar step. He said a meeting between developers and neighborhood associations would be an ice-breaker and a good-faith gesture on the developer’s part. Although developers usually meet with nearby residents, the new requirement would come very early in the process to allow neighborhoods more time to discuss the proposed project.

Teddy’s department is also compiling a list of homeowner associations, which are not recognized by the city, so developers can have a better idea of whom they should talk to as they begin the process. The department has also begun to hold public meetings every time a development proposal that requires a public hearing is filed with the city.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said the city needs to establish some meeting rules for city-recognized neighborhood associations if they are going to become more formally involved in the development process. He said sometimes they don’t record votes accurately or report how many people from the association attend.

“Too often, people come before the council and when asked what these meetings were like, they don’t quite remember,” he said. “If they’re going to be stakeholders at the table, they need to play by the same rules.”

Although Greever-Rice said the city is moving in the right direction, she still thinks her group is a necessary piece to an equitable and forward-thinking development process.

“I think what the city’s doing is absolutely appropriate; it’s what it should be doing,” she said. “But I’m not sure that in and of itself provides the kind of protection and representation that people necessarily need. The development community doesn’t leave it up to the planning department to represent their interests. They have their own organization.”

Skala said the process needs to, and is becoming, more open and accessible, given that many proposals turn into fights between developers and neighborhoods.

“It’s not one-sided; we’re not just looking at a populist movement to help the neighborhood associations,” he said. “We also want to help the developers. If everybody is on board with this, I think there will be far less acrimony than there is now.”

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