Council discusses public access to conserved areas

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 | 6:20 p.m. CDT; updated 12:23 a.m. CST, Wednesday, November 26, 2008

COLUMBIA — With more than 2,000 acres of parks and greenspace in Columbia, it’s safe to say that residents value their time outdoors. But do city officials have the right to allow public access on land dedicated to the city through a conservation easement?

The City Council hasn’t come to a consensus yet, as evidenced by Monday night’s discussion of rezoning land for the development of the Silver Oak Senior Living Center. The talk centered on whether the public would have access to about 2.7 acres of forest that would be preserved.

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The original greenspace conservation easement would have prohibited the developer from building on those 2.7 acres, but it would not have allowed anyone to enter the area, either.

This is where things get contentious.

Mayor Darwin Hindman and Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala agreed the forest should be open for the public to enjoy.

“It bothers me a lot to have a public area that for some reason — whether it’s a conservation easement or any other — limits access to some folks particularly over access to others,” Skala said.

But Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser noted that easements don’t transfer ownership of land to the city; they only allow the city to maintain them.

“If we put it as an access (easement), then anybody has the right to come onto that property, which is still private property, which we have just allowed the public to access at free will,” she said.

“I’m not talking about having a picnic in the middle of this piece of property,” Skala said. “I’m talking about watching some birds, that’s all. And you cannot do that with a conservation easement, apparently.”

The neighborhood association’s goal was to protect the trees, Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said.

“The greenspace conservation easement, I think, is the correct way to do that,” he said.

“Every inch of our public property does not have to be accessible to everyone,” Nauser said. “If it were deeded to the city, I would have no problem.”

Woodridge Neighborhood Association president Allen Hahn said the association hadn’t discussed whether the public should have access to the land preserved by the easement.

In the end, the council voted to rezone the property and allow the developer and the residents to negotiate new terms for the easement, which eventually will be presented to the council for approval.

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