Neighbors acted to prevent commercial development of Smarr property

Tuesday, May 3, 2011 | 5:31 p.m. CDT; updated 12:02 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 4, 2011

COLUMBIA — Even before Brian Gill bought and began restoring the Smarr property at the end of Lathrop Road, it already had quite a story. If not for the quick action of the people of the neighborhood, the woods there would be gone, possibly replaced by an apartment complex.

The Smarr family had been living there since the 1920s, and the house was most recently occupied by Robert Smarr Jr. and his wife, Jane. Robert Smarr Jr. was a real steward of the land, said Bruce Gordon, who has lived across from the property with his wife, Kathy, since 1979. Smarr valued, loved and protected it, he said.

When Robert Smarr Jr. died about 2½ years ago and Jane Smarr moved out shortly after, the neighbors were uncertain about what would happen to the property, but Kathy Gordon said she expected it to stay within the Smarr family.

So, it came as a shock to the neighborhood when a sign went up on the lawn in August 2009, with the property for sale as commercial property. One day, less than a week after it went on the market, Donald Ludwig, who has lived around the corner from the property for about 18½ years, learned from a friend who is a real estate agent that a developer had made an offer, hoping to sign a contract.

“The word got around the neighborhood pretty quick,” Bruce Gordon said.

Many were up in arms about losing the residential quality of the neighborhood, Gordon said, and started throwing around plans to save it.

The rumor was that the developer’s plan was to build three apartment buildings with a capacity for 160 bedrooms, Gordon said. Based on a formula the city sets for the number of parking spaces needed per apartment complex, Kathy Gordon estimated they would need to build about 108 spaces — not nearly enough for all of the potential tenants and any guests they might have, so some cars would need to be parked in the street.

The roads in the neighborhood were not designed for traffic from 160 cars, Bruce Gordon said, and it would be dangerous for all of the school-aged children in the area.

Several of the neighborhood's residents talked about what to do. They knew they would need to put in an offer within a week to have a chance to buy the property, Ludwig said.

The Gordons and their real estate agent made an appointment with the seller’s agent that afternoon, where they made an offer for the land close to the $950,000 asking price.

The developer was notified of their offer, and he made a counter-offer to go up to the full asking price. At that point, their real estate agent called the Gordons and asked if they could meet the counter-offer.

The Gordons made the earnest-money payment and signed the contract on the property, and relief went around the neighborhood, Bruce Gordon said. But the couple was unsure about being responsible for the land, and they knew they would not be able to fully afford the property on their own. So, they sent out a letter to the neighbors, asking to hold a meeting to discuss the situation and get help with the whole process.

Other neighbors wrote letters and pledged, donated and worked to raise money as well. Ludwig wrote a two-paragraph summary of the situation, asking if people would be willing to contribute. He walked down his street, knocking on doors, and within two hours had $25,000 in checks.

Because no one person could handle the process alone, the neighbors formed Westmount Neighborhood Preservation LLC, so they could operate as a business entity, Ludwig said. They worked with different attorneys to get a tax identification number and wrote an operating agreement, established officers, managers and members within the LLC and opened a checking account at Boone County National Bank.

After 2½ weeks, they had raised about $750,000 and secured a line of credit for up to $300,000 in loans from Boone County National Bank and Landmark Bank. On Sept. 14, 2009, they closed on the sale, according to a previous Missourian article.

In the end, 92 contributors gave money to the LLC, Ludwig said. Some lived as far as a mile away from the property, and some didn’t even live in the neighborhood.

Of the 92 contributors, 29 became members of the LLC.

There were several ideas proposed for what to do with the property, including developing it or donating it to the city to be used as a park, Bruce Gordon said, but each option came with its own costs and obstacles. In the end, the working plan was to try to sell the house and part of the land and to give the rest to the city of Columbia.

However, with the line of credit due to expire in September 2011, they knew they wouldn't have much time to sell the property. So after a promising buyer dropped out and Brian Gill said he would buy the whole piece, they offered him the full 3.2 acres with one stipulation: that it remain a one-family property.

Before the sale was made, they had to go before the City Council to have a few changes made to the property and regulations surrounding it.

The part of Lathrop Road east of Garth Avenue, where the property sits, was never officially made a street, so that had to be done. As a street, it would require a sidewalk, but that would have killed some of the oak trees on the property, including its 350-year-old oak tree, so they asked for a variance that would allow them to go without a sidewalk. The property also needed to be surveyed.

Finally, they asked to have the property rezoned from R-3 to R-1, ensuring that it would not be used commercially in the future.

After meetings and discussions with the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council, the changes were approved, and the property was sold to Gill in March.

Though the property was sold for far less than it had cost, there was still enough money made to pay off the line of credit and other expenses, such as the costs of mowing and snow removal, Ludwig said.

There is a small amount left over, some of which will be used to pay the lawyers and auditors that worked with the LLC. After that, whatever remains will be distributed among the members of the LLC, at which point it will be legally closed, Ludwig said.

The neighborhood faced roadblocks throughout the process, Ludwig said. "Sometimes, it felt like Mount Everest."

Still, they're happy with the way it turned out. "We're all very satisfied," he said.

Bruce Gordon said they feel they have achieved their goal: keeping the property green and occupied by a single family.

“That was our fondest hope,” he said.

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