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Rock Quarry neighborhood slowly losing battle against development

Sunday, October 14, 2012 | 4:37 p.m. CDT; updated 4:05 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 15, 2012
The development of new apartment complexes has altered the landscape surrounding the scenic Rock Quarry Road.

*An earlier version of this story misidentified the date Columbia City Council rejected Jan Pritchard's petition.

COLUMBIA — Twenty-five years ago Rock Quarry Road ran through farmland, and at night the whoosh of a passing automobile only briefly punctuated the roadside's tranquil darkness.

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Today the area buzzes with traffic from a Walmart Supercenter, fast-food restaurants and a Kohl's department store almost 24 hours a day. One section of Rock Quarry channels more than 1,130 vehicles per day, a nearly 380 percent increase from 1997.

Disappointment thickens the voices of Rock Quarry residents who talk about the city's conservation effort for the road corridor. Their unachieved dream was to create a conservation area for their neighborhood, stretching from the Grindstone Nature Area to Rock Bridge State Park, where Rock Quarry Road connects to Highway 163.

Instead, residents have slowly watched their neighborhood be transformed into subdivisions, apartment complexes and chain businesses.

Their most recent serving of dissatisfaction came from the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission, which voted to support a rezoning request and a commercial plan for a Break Time store at 3407 Rock Quarry Road.

The last vestiges of a historic farm, the property contains a farmhouse whose construction predates the county's tax assessor records. Those records estimate the vine-covered house to be at least 80 years old.

Resting on a two-acre parcel, the dilapidated structure exists out of place beside glitzy student housing with alluring names such as "The Grove" and "The Pointe." Without a farm to serve, the farmhouse now sits dark and overgrown at the intersection of Rock Quarry and Grindstone Parkway, where almost 30,000 vehicles pass per day.

Jan Pritchard, a resident of the Rock Quarry area for more than 20 years, said a Break Time is not the best use of her neighborhood's historic property. Rallying her neighbors last month, Pritchard submitted a petition to the Columbia City Council in order to oppose the rezoning request by a developer based in Tipton.

On Oct. 1*, the Council rejected Pritchard's petition on a technicality but allowed her an additional two weeks to submit a new document. After submitting a new petition, Pritchard is trying to get some sleep before Monday's City Council meeting, where she hopes at least three council members agree with her that Break Time should choose a different corner.

It's possible the council might disappoint Pritchard and her neighbors. It wouldn't be the first time.

In 2002, after residents worked for years to create a principled land-use plan with the city, collaborating with elected officials to strike a balance between single-family homes and housing for transient college students, the neighborhood association believed the city would enforce a hard-earned vision concerning development in the community.

Resident Vicky Riback Wilson, an active member of the association, said the neighborhood was wrong.

"We were naive in thinking that once we went through the process with the city, landowners and other stakeholders, that people would actually recognize (the planning) as a valid process and honor its intent," she said.

"What we've found is that loopholes we weren't aware of were exploited for the advantage of developers," Wilson said.

When a developer supported Stan Kroenke's proposed Walmart within a mile of Rock Quarry Road in 2003, Jerry Wade was serving as chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Under Wade's leadership, the commission recommended City Council vote against rezoning the land, which was covered by the neighborhood plan.

Unfortunately, the plan did not hold up, Wade said in a recent interview.

"(The neighborhood plan) was advisory only," he said. "It was not in the form of an ordinance. It (was intended) to guide, and developers overwhelmed it."

Asked how developers could do that, Wade offered a simple reply: "All it takes is four votes on the council."

Parkway cuts a neighborhood in half

Rock Quarry Road now is a hub for student housing and a major connector for traffic running to and from MU. The curvy, two-lane road also receives traffic from Grindstone Parkway, which shuttles more than 25,000 vehicles per day, including semitrailers.

Richard Simpson remembers more than 20 years ago when his old farmhouse at Grindstone and Rock Quarry looked out over a pastoral landscape nearly the size of New York City's Central Park. Once farmland and forests, that land now supports modern subdivisions, a car wash and several other businesses.

Simpson said the city and the Missouri Department of Transportation are responsible for the fate of his neighborhood. Thirteen years ago, the city and state collaborated to build a freeway through southern Columbia in order to relieve traffic congestion. But Grindstone Parkway wound up cutting his community in half.

The ultimate decision to build Grindstone through the Rock Quarry neighborhood was one that then-Third Ward Councilwoman Donna Crockett called making "the best of a bad situation," reported the Columbia Tribune in a 1999 article.

Simpson admits that traffic congestion merited a new highway and that a new four-lane road would affect landowners no matter where it was built. For the sake of the neighborhood, he argues that the city should have built a highway a few blocks south of his former home.

Before the parkway was built, traffic congestion along Nifong Boulevard was dangerous. West of Rock Quarry, the Nifong-Providence intersection made the state's high hazard list in 1994. East of Rock Quarry, 11 accidents occurred within a single year — between April 1, 1995, and March 31, 1996 — at Nifong and Old 63.

Running "a monster" like Grindstone Parkway through Rock Quarry, instead of widening Nifong Boulevard to the south, was a mortal blow to Simpson's  neighborhood, he said. Its neighborhood association shrank as members moved away, and it was unable to preserve its historical and environmental richness.

Eleven years ago he began renting out his Rock Quarry home because his wife and daughter didn't want to live beside a freeway.

For almost eight years, Simpson refused offers by developers who wanted access to Grindstone's traffic. The string of proposed businesses for the corner were not in the best interest of his neighborhood, Simpson said. Three years ago, Simpson sold his property to a person from Tipton. He only later learned that the person represented 8 Ball Commerical Properties, which leased the property to MFA Oil.

Having lost the power he possessed to at least somewhat control development in his former neighborhood, Simpson predicts the entire area will become shopping centers and student housing.

Several public officials share Simpson's prediction for Rock Quarry.  At a Sept. 6 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission, members Rusty Stodtman and Ray Puri suggested that commercial development will occur on all three corners of the Rock Quarry intersection, where a park, a church and an older subdivision now exist.

Puri also predicted that Rock Quarry will become a four-lane scenic road.

That night, the commission voted 6-3 to recommend City Council rezone Simpson' former property to make way for the Break Time store. That vote came against overwhelming opposition from Rock Quarry residents and surprised city planners who testified at the public hearing.

Days later, Boone County Assessor Tom Schauwecker, said with a touch of sadness that development will follow anytime you run a four-lane highway through agricultural land.

That's just the way things work, he said.

Good intentions fail to control growth

In 1998, when the route for Grindstone Parkway was being discussed, the city assured residents that zoning for the Rock Quarry area would remain decidedly uncommercial, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.

"The primary use (for the area along Grindstone) is residential. ... There may be some smatterings of commercial," John John, who was chairman of the planning commission, said at the time.

The city had developed guidelines to ensure commercial areas within residential districts are unobtrusive, he said, referring to the city's comprehensive Metro 2020 plan.

Noting that the city failed to adhere to the Metro 2020 plan over the following decade, city planner Matthew Lepke said guidelines cannot ensure compliance because they are by nature advisory.

City Attorney Fred Boeckmann confirmed the city is not bound to follow its own land-use plans. "Planning is nonbinding; it is not a law," he said.

Attempting to develop both binding and non-binding plans for the neighborhood, residents were able to get the city to designate Rock Quarry Road a scenic route protected by city ordinance in the mid-1990s. With residents' input, the city also created a neighborhood land-use plan, which was advisory only and designed to discourage excessive development near the remaining single-family homes along Rock Quarry.

It wasn't long, though, before the City Council gave green lights to several major development projects near Rock Quarry. The Planning and Zoning Commission opposed most of these decisions, but it lacked legal power to enforce city development guidelines.

In 2003, the City Council approved a request to rezone property less than a mile west of Rock Quarry Road to accommodate the Walmart Supercenter. Wade, then-chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said the council's decision was regretful.

"This major retail center violated both purposes of the Rock Quarry Road Special Area Plan," he said at the time.

People feared the Walmart construction on a 53-acre plot would pollute Hinkson Creek, which connects to a small tributary running behind the Walmart property. Attorney Craig Van Matre, representing the developer, THF Grindstone Plaza Development, promised in 2004 that "water will be in the same condition when it leaves as when it enters the site."

After construction began in 2007, the EPA discovered sediment from the construction site running into Hinkson Creek and fined THF and its contractor $146,833, the largest penalty ever assessed in EPA Region 7, which includes Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska.

The fine came on the heels of a City Council vote to approve plats for more major retailers on Grindstone, including Kohl's. Again, that vote conflicted with the recommendations of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Most recently, in 2010, the council decided to go ahead and rezone about 25 acres across the street from Walmart for commercial development. Planning and Zoning Commissioner Doug Wheeler vented his frustration about the council's unilateral decision at the Sept. 6 planning meeting:

"We did not support the Red Oak development on the south side of the road," Wheeler said. "We didn’t support the light there, nor did we support the development. City Council passed that in their infinite wisdom."

Wade, who is no longer in politics, said he regrets that the city didn't follow through on land-use plans for Rock Quarry Road.

"It's one of those sad situations where we did things right. ... We did not have the political will to make it work," he said. "That's my regret, the process was the right one and it did not work."

Planners want to adhere to city's original plan

City planners say they are surprised that zoning and development decisions have failed to comply with the Rock Quarry Road Special Area Plan or the city's Metro 2020 plan, which is intended to provide guidelines for development throughout Columbia.

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said she is irritated that the city has allowed developers to shirk responsibilities to the neighborhood. A park on the corner of Grindstone and Rock Quarry, she said, is an example of how developers are negligent.

The park with a single trail and few trees was part of a deal between the city and developers to allow rezoning land for Walmart in 2003. 

"It was like pulling tooth and nails to get them to put a park sign up," Hoppe said. "They hired inexperienced people to maintain the land, so the flowers and trees died. The developer was really negligent in not carrying through."

Pat Zenner, the city's development services manager, is one of several city staff members recommending that the council reject rezoning for the Break Time.

"Development that is more consistent with the (Rock Quarry) plan is mixed-use office," he said. "We'd like to hold (developers) to the plan, (but) the council ultimately has the authority to support or deny any land-use policy."

Hoppe, hearing the concerns of her constituents, said the city has "to do a much better job of having plans and sticking with them."

The city's failure to restrain development around Rock Quarry is breeding cynicism and suspicion among nearby residents, Hoppe noted.

Marcia Green, who owns property across the street from Simpson's old farmhouse, said "big money" is controlling the council's decisions. Simpson called the city's conservation efforts a "dog biscuit" to pacify the community.

"It has to be discouraging for residents that planning is so easily discarded," Hoppe said. "I will do everything that I can to preserve what is left of (the Rock Quarry neighborhood)."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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Comments

Bill Weitkemper October 14, 2012 | 6:24 p.m.

The first thing to consider: the R-1 residential neighborhood was there first, since 1995.

The second thing to consider: is it appropriate to approve a rezoning request that allows a Break Time store to be constructed next door to an existing R-1 residential neighborhood.

(Report Comment)
Bill Fisher October 14, 2012 | 8:05 p.m.

Time goes on, things change, land becomes developed.

That's a great spot for a convenience store, so I don't have a problem with them building it.

Next up, they need to widen Rock Quarry road between Grindstone and Stadium, get rid of the ditches, and put in bike lanes and a sidewalk so students who want to commute on foot or bike, are safe to do so.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble October 15, 2012 | 11:51 a.m.

This appalling story represents everything currently wrong with the dynamics of power in this city, and is one of the most disappointing developments in this town in ages.

Every step of the way, I've been disappointed and at times ashamed of the choices made by people who could have acted with more courage, vision, and fortitude against turning some of the most naturally beautiful and tranquil parts of our community into traffic-congested, unsafe, concrete-slathered low-rent dumps. And make no mistake, that is what we have here. These gargantuan student developments and strip-mall, convenience-store projects don't enhance a community. They create a short-term gain for a very few people, with the town becoming uglier and cheaper, and in the rush toward supposed progress, no one seems to realize how irreplaceable actual character is.

And to do all of this around a narrow, twisting, lovely scenic road that was never meant to handle this kind of thing - with much more substantial roads that *are* meant to handle this kind of thing nearby in either direction - is the sad punch line.

So what does this say about us? Moneyed people with no imagination and low standards push their way through turnstile city officials who seem to be in place only to pass the buck and read supposedly immutable rules out loud as the legions of dump trucks roar by, eternally, in this perpetually adolescent community that seems unable to stop trading maturity for starting over, again and again.

Time goes on. Things do change. But how that happens, and whether something is considered and prioritized beyond the immediate dollar sign and illusion of progress, is critical. And I see a lot of failure in that area.

City Council, P&Z, and all other related city and planning officials: it's not too late. Exercise some courage, define standards that most of the community supports, and help this city become something special. It's going to be difficult, but please do it before every last bit of our character is buried under cut-rate concrete.

(Report Comment)
Matthew Schacht October 18, 2012 | 10:28 a.m.

I'm the reporter for this story. I would like to interject and share a comment from Jan Pritchard. Jan wished to clarify her role in organizing the Rock Quarry Community and petitioning the city. Rock Quarry resident Barbara Davis gathered signatures for the petition. Jan on the other hand served as a spokeswoman for the neighborhood.

(Report Comment)

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