COLUMBIA — Just north of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park lies a shut-in patch of wilderness.
Past the rusted wire fence, a sea of pale gold grass crowns rolling hills that rise and fall in steep, undulating waves. To the south, oak, hickory and maple trees mark the northern boundary of the park; to the east, a narrow, icy stream cuts a sharp groove into the earth and disappears into the forest beyond.
The place may be empty, but reminders of life are everywhere: a plastic tap pushed into a maple tree, a deer skull nestled in the grass. The land always has had a story to tell. It has changed owners five times over the past three and a half decades, transitioning from family-owned property to the potential home of a private school to an area staked out for residential development.
Today, it is the site of a brewing controversy: a proposed housing subdivision that has drawn criticism from neighbors and environmental groups worried about the development's density and its proximity to a state park.
Parkside Estates would feature 11 villa-style duplexes, 65 single-family homes and two exits that would open onto Route K from the east. A proposal to annex and rezone the 35.8-acre tract was scheduled for a public hearing at the Dec. 6 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission. The request's components, however, have since been separated. The Columbia City Council will hold a public hearing on the annexation request on Monday night. The commission will consider the rezoning on Jan. 10.
At the heart of the conflict is whether the proposal will follow recommendations in the Bonne Femme Watershed Plan. The plan, which the city and Boone County adopted in 2007, aims to improve and maintain the quality of water resources, conserve karst topography and encourage low-impact development.
Parkside Estates developer Rob Hill, who lives next to the site, did not respond to Missourian requests for comment. Hill owns Log Hill Properties, which specializes in off-campus student housing.
For area resident Sandy McCann, the land is full of memories.
She recalls picking grapes in her grandmother’s garden, which once stood between her sister's house and the northern boundary of the proposed Parkside Estates. Decades later, remnants of a wire fence around the garden remain.
McCann said her grandmother had an enormous garden, full of corn, green beans, tomatoes and peppers. During the harvest, she would help her family can vegetables for winter. The bounty would bury her grandmother's table, she said.
The Parkside property was in McCann's family for generations. It was once part of a parcel that belonged to her grandfather, W.B. Smith, for whom the eight-household subdivision north of the site is named. In 1979, Smith divided the land among eight descendants: McCann, her four siblings, and her cousin, father and aunt. McCann and several relatives live in the area today.
The tract targeted by Hill's development was given to McCann's aunt, Helen Jacob. When Jacob died, the land passed to her niece, Judy Dwyer, and subsequently changed family ownership once more, ending up as the property of McCann's cousin, Dale Bea.
Real estate records indicate Bea sold the land to Delta Park Developments LLC in 2006. Columbia Independent School bought the site the following year with the intention of relocating there. Ultimately, though, the school decided to move into the former Toastmasters building on North Stadium Boulevard. The parcel was purchased in October 2012 by Southside Trail Estates LLC, which is led by Hill.
The W.B. Smith subdivision is quiet, a neighborhood McCann describes as "very nature-like," with the occasional rosebush-eating deer and a fish-stocked lake whose glassy surface is frequently broken by a flock of waterfowl.
"It's a rural, quiet area next to a state park," she said. "You don't hear your neighbors."
McCann said she is most worried about the damage that runoff from a high-density subdivision might do to Rock Bridge State Park and the karst beneath the surface.
"We'll never be able to put back the damage that's done once the development's in place," she said.
Plans for a petition
Three days after McCann first heard about the development, she walked door to door around her neighborhood to let the neighbors know. It wasn’t long before neighborhood meetings happened. Then a petition drive resulted.
“It was kind of a snowball,” McCann said.
McCann said her brother, Marty Smith, forwarded her an email about Parkside Estates on the Friday before Thanksgiving — an email that had only been sent to residents within a 185-foot range of the development, as required by the city code.
If annexed, the subdivision would become part of the Sixth Ward, represented by Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe. McCann fears a domino effect in which surrounding areas would also become part of the city.
Her neighborhood, she said, probably would be next.
McCann hopes to present the petition at the Jan. 22 City Council meeting if the Planning and Zoning Commission gives its nod of approval to the rezoning. The petition would require that five of seven council members approve the rezoning for it to pass. McCann worries, however, that she might not get the required number of signatures.
Because the neighborhood never signed a homeowner's association agreement, she said, the eight subdivision households have become a sort of "no man's land," and a petition could require a signature from each legal homeowner in the area.
"It's going to be tough," McCann said. "Either we all sign or it doesn't count."
Moreover, several groups she had anticipated would be key players in the conflict have declined to get involved.
Rock Bridge Elementary School stands at Route K and Old Plank Road, about 2,000 feet north of the subdivision site, but Columbia Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said there are no plans to sign the petition. It isn’t district policy to get involved in development projects.
McCann also had hoped to get the signatures from representatives of Rock Bridge State Park and the Boone County Fire Protection District, which has a station in the area. Both have declined, however, citing policy conflicts.
For opponents of the subdivision, karst topography is an underlying concern — in every sense of the word.
Rock Bridge State Park is well known for its karst formations, geographical features created by the dissolution of limestone or other types of carbonate rock. Karst elements include caves, sinkholes and losing streams — those that lose water as they flow downstream.
Ken Midkiff, conservation chair of the Osage Group of the Sierra Club, said the city has inadequately addressed the possibility that the park’s karst features extend into the development site. The tract features a losing stream, a potential indicator of subterranean pockets in the Earth.
Midkiff also worries that construction could uncover a hidden hole that would injure workers or damage their equipment.
“Hill will need to do quite a bit of dirt work,” he said.
City planner Matt Lepke doubts that karst would pose a significant problem but said it “couldn’t hurt” to investigate further.
“I worked in a county where there were a lot of sinkholes and karst formations,” he said. “I need to be balanced in saying that there could be caves in the area.”
If the developer encounters karst features, there are ways to protect workers, Lepke said, adding that he doesn't believe that would be necessary in this case.
He said his judgment is based in part on the assessments of city stormwater engineers, who are trained to identify problem spots based on observations of water quality and runoff.
“I trust their competence,” he said.
Engineer Tim Crockett said his firm, Crockett Engineering Consultants, would look into the matter, but he does not believe karst will be an issue for Parkside Estates.
“We have no indication that there are karst features on the site,” he said.
Crockett said his firm has encountered karst topography on other projects and has found ways to work around it.
Bonne Femme and Rock Bridge involvement
Midkiff argues that Rock Bridge park officials weren't adequately notified of Hill's proposal and that the subdivision does not adhere to the Bonne Femme Watershed Plan.
“There’s no other state park in Missouri that has a development like this so close to it,” he said.
Midkiff said Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, had planned on opposing Parkside Estates at the Dec. 6 Planning and Zoning meeting before the date was changed.
Lepke, however, said the park had been notified of the development via postcard and letter, in accordance with city code. He said park superintendent Jim Gast was aware of the proposal when he called him on Dec. 7 to discuss it.
In controlling storm water quality, Lepke said, the city would follow closely the guidelines outlined in Chapter 12A of the city code. He noted that city code takes precedence over the Bonne Femme plan.
“It’s an important document but not a must-be-followed one,” he said of the Bonne Femme plan. “It’s advisory.”
Still, Lepke said, the development proposal adheres to several of the plan’s recommendations, such as its recommendation that no structures be built in floodplains.
County officials recommend the subdivision comply with the Bonne Femme plan, particularly by using planned and low-impact developments to minimize environmental impact.
In response to resident complaints that the city's initial staff report to the Planning and Zoning Commission excluded the county comments, Lepke said the relevant information was included in the city report under the Bonne Femme Watershed Plan subsection.
“The last thing we want to do is be adversarial to anyone who’s a citizen,” Lepke said.
Stormwater and traffic concerns
City engineer Lee White said plans to preserve stormwater quality remain preliminary, but the idea for now is to use a detention basin to treat and decrease stormwater flow.
"Some water will run into the stream, but the detention basin will make up for it by over-detaining," he said.
Jacob Ray, a traffic operations engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, said the subdivision’s exits wouldn’t lead to an increase in traffic congestion.
“We didn’t foresee the development generating a large amount of traffic,” he said.
Because Parkside Estates would be landlocked, it would be highly unlikely for additional development to occur to the east or to the south, he said.
Jan Weaver, treasurer of Friends of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, a nonprofit group committed to preserving and promoting the park’s resources, said the organization is aware of the Parkside proposal.
“We’ve been talking with each other about how to respond to (the development),” she said. “It’s pretty informal at this stage.”
Weaver said she expects she and other members of the group will speak at the Jan. 10 hearing.
Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said he “couldn’t imagine” supporting the plan.
“It’s on pretty critical watershed land,” he said. “It seems like an inappropriate development.”
Trapp said a key concern is that the watershed is home to five endangered species: pink planarians, gray bats, Indiana bats, Topeka shiners and cherrystone snails. He learned that from Terry Frueh, former leader of the Bonne Femme Stakeholder Committee.
"It's beautiful land," Trapp said.
An uncertain future
Route K is no stranger to development. Construction on a $2 million bicycle lane project is wrapping up, and backhoes and bulldozers line the edge of the road from dawn to dusk, trucking away dirt and placing finishing touches on the asphalt.
But Parkside Estates is one development McCann could live without.
McCann's involvement in the controversy is a first for her — she has never been part of an organized protest until now. But she has a worthy cause, citing her love for the state park and her desire to see the landscape preserved, she said.
“I was raised to have pure, honest values,” McCann said. “I think people know that of me.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.