COLUMBIA – The decision is in: Columbia Regency mobile home park has been rezoned to accommodate plans by Aspen Heights to build upscale apartments for college students.
The debate about Columbia Regency, which began in September when news first broke of the Churchill Group's plans to sell and close the park, ended Monday night when the Columbia City Council voted 5-2 to approve the rezoning. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe dissented.
The council's vote came after more than three hours of public input and more than a half hour of deliberation by the council. It approved not only the rezoning, which will allow up to 8.5 apartments per acre, but also a final plat for the 39.5-acre property at Bearfield Road and Nifong Boulevard.
Aspen Heights plans to build 330 apartments with a total of 936 bedrooms.
Dozens spoke to the council. An overwhelming majority of them opposed the rezoning.
Speakers included residents of the park, MU students and residents of Columbia. Most cited concerns about affordable housing in the city; others worried about the impact the apartment development would have on traffic, stormwater runoff and sewer capacity.
In September, residents of the park teamed up with Grass Roots Organizing to fight the rezoning. Although they originally intended to preserve the mobile home park, Churchill — doing business as Regency of Columbia — notified residents in late October that it would close the park and require residents to move by Feb. 29, 2012.
Aspen Heights followed with a community meeting Tuesday during which Charlie Vatterott, its vice president for development, told residents that if the rezoning were approved the company would give them until April 30 to leave and until May 31 if they have school-age children. It also offered financial assistance of $1,800 for single-wide mobile homeowners and $3,000 for double-wide mobile homeowners to help with the cost of relocating their trailers. It tacked on an extra $500 for those who signed forms saying they would accept the money.
The final plan presented the $500 to all residents, which Vatterott said was because some residents were unable to attend the meeting at the park and wanted to sign those forms. On Monday, he had some signatures in a spiral notebook from residents unable to sign earlier.
During the meeting, many speakers called the $500 "coercion." But Vatterott said it was a method of getting a true indication of the number of residents who supported it.
At the council meeting, residents of Grass Roots Organizing and its MU branch, GRO Mizzou, presented a petition to the council bearing more than 1,200 signatures. Several MU students spoke against the rezoning, prompting gratitude from the council for their involvement and pleas that they remain involved in affordable housing issues.
GRO member Mary Hussmann spoke against the rezoning. "This is a test for Columbia, and it's one we dare not fail," she said.
James Mace was one of the park residents who spoke in favor of the rezoning because of the money he would not otherwise receive.
"I'm not living no fairy tale here," he said in reference to the possibility other speakers had mentioned of the park being saved.
Anthony began the council's deliberations by saying the proposed apartment development was too dense, particularly given the amount of traffic already flowing through the area on Ponderosa Street, Bearfield Road and Grindstone Parkway. She also said she agreed with the Planning and Zoning Commission's unanimous vote against the rezoning in September.
Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl called the entire situation "a debacle." He said Regency residents, Churchill and the city all deserve some of the blame for the condition of the mobile home park.
"If we vote no, the residents lose," he said of the Feb. 29 deadline for relocating that Churchill had imposed. "If we vote yes, the residents gain something, but they lose in the end. So what do we do?"
Hoppe also cited traffic as a major concern and said mixed residential use would be more appropriate for the area. She also pledged to try to raise money to help residents relocate if the rezoning were rejected and the Aspen Heights' assistance were lost.
Mayor Bob McDavid joined Kespohl and councilmen Fred Schmidt, Jason Thornhill and Daryl Dudley of the First, Second and Fourth wards, respectively, in supporting the rezoning. He reasoned that a vote in favor of the rezoning would ensure Regency residents received at least some help with relocating expenses.
"At the end of the day, this is a painful situation," McDavid said, adding later that "there is a rule of law working here that none of us here has any control over."