COLUMBIA — The Planning and Zoning Commission work session Thursday night spent little time on zoning documents and planning agendas.
Rather, most of the two-hour session between the volunteer commission and the city's professional planning staff focused on trust, transparency and procedure between city staff and the commission. It's an issue the city has struggled with in the past, with a legacy of strong upper-management by former City Manager Ray Beck having been replaced by what many see as a more open style by current City Manager Bill Watkins.
"Ray Beck ran a very top-down organization," Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said. "The City Council appreciated it. It was a smaller town, but we've outgrown that."
The discussion Thursday was prompted by a five-hour Planning and Zoning Commission meeting a week earlier, on June 19. One of the big issues that night was a request to annex 271 acres on the east border of Columbia adjacent to Richland Road.
Other than the large amount of land, the project is significant because it could establish an important precedent in a part of the city that planners see as the most poised for growth. Stadium Boulevard will eventually be extended to Interstate 70 through the area, and an extension of Rolling Hills Road was approved by the City Council this month.
The proposal to annex and zone the land as planned commercial and planned residential already had been tabled twice by the commission since November 2008. The third time around, staff in the city's Planning and Development Department recommended its approval after spending weeks negotiating a development agreement.
But people who live near the land lined up against it, waiting three hours to speak at the June 19 meeting. No one but Robert Hollis, the attorney representing the developer, spoke in favor of the proposal, and the commission voted 7-0 vote against it.
At the end of the meeting, some commissioners complained that they felt the staff had openly advocated for the project at the meeting. Commissioner Helen Anthony was upset that the final version of the developer's statement of intent wasn't given to commissioners until the beginning of the public hearing. Commissioner Ann Peters said she was shocked to hear Hollis say that Watkins wanted the project to move forward now.
Hollis said in an interview that he talked with Watkins almost a year ago about whether to move forward on a project of this scale when the route of the Stadium extension was unknown. Watkins, also in an interview, said he recommended waiting until the Stadium route was known.
"I believe the question was: Do we move forward on a big master plan or do we move it in piecemeal?" Watkins said. "I thought the council and commission would like to see how it would affect the whole area."
Patrick Zenner, development services manager, said he got no direction from upper management to write the staff report on the proposal in any particular manner.
"I was more disappointed there was that suspicion of staff's activities," he said.
The department put a lot of work into hammering out a development agreement for the Richland Road project that included provisions requiring traffic studies and road work to support development, Planning Director Tim Teddy said. Nevertheless, he said he had a feeling the commission would oppose the plan.
"What was compelling to us was a way to keep the parcel whole and do some longer-term planning, look further ahead than one year or even five years," Teddy said. But maybe "we missed a signal" from the commission.
The June 19 meeting raised some big questions about the interaction between city staff and city commissions. So Chairman Jeff Barrow changed the agenda for the Thursday work session so they could talk about what each expects of the other.
"I think the fact that they work for us and answer to a boss can create an appearance of tension, like who are they really working for?" Barrow said.
Referencing "Raybeckistan" and "smoke-filled rooms" as examples of how business used to be conducted, Barrow said the commission needs to know how the department generates reports. It's been different under Watkins, he said, but the type of work the commission and staff have been charged with lately — creating long-term planning documents and comprehensive plans — means they have to be able to work together.
And so the commissioners and and staff went around the table and spoke their minds about how business has been conducted and how it should be conducted, using last week's proposal as an example. Skala even showed up.
One issue that emerged was the pressure commissioners feel when they know staff has spent a lot of time reviewing a project. Commissioner Glenn Rice said he felt that sort of pressure on the complex Richland Road proposal.
Although Rice said he values staff recommendations, he was disturbed to hear Zenner say "we" last Thursday — meaning staff and the developer — when answering questions about the project.
"That sounded dangerously close to advocacy," Rice said.
Some commissioners were especially bothered when they perceived Hollis as indicating the project had Watkins' support.
"That skewed the whole rest of the process as far as I'm concerned," Anthony said. "I felt like it was being driven from the top."
Peters said her mouth dropped when Hollis made the statement.
"He made it sound like, 'the big guy's got my back,'" she said.
Peters' main concern is that negotiations are undermined if a developer knows a planner's boss supports a project.
Commissioner Doug Wheeler said that in public hearings, staff should restrict itself to presenting only the facts.
"I think that you present a position, but once it's presented I think you sometimes feel a need to defend it, and I disagree with that," he said.
Teddy said planners often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to take a position on a development before the public — or elected or appointed officials — weigh in.
"Frankly, anyone applying for zoning is going to ask us, 'how do you feel about this?'" he said.
Commissioners said they value staff recommendations but want to do their own evaluations as well. They plan to pick up the conversation again at their next work session.
"Trust," Peters said. "That's pretty much what this all comes down to."