Columbia residents petition for repeal of student-housing agreement, cite lack of public process

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 | 6:24 p.m. CDT; updated 1:39 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 7, 2014

COLUMBIA — Columbia residents are circulating a petition to try and rescind the city's agreement with a student-housing developer.

Citing concerns with the process used by the Columbia City Council to pass development agreements with two student-housing developers, the petition could potentially send the city's agreement with Opus Development Co., otherwise known as Ordinance 62-14, back to the council. 

Jeremy Root, a spokesman for the group of about 15 residents who are distributing the petition, said the coalition is responding to what they feel was a rush to approve the development plan.

"The idea for the petition emerged simultaneously with the extraordinary process that council used to rush the consideration of the ordinance," Root said, "The only tool citizens have to appeal the passage of an ordinance is a referendum."

Opus Development Co. plans to build a six-story, 256-bed student-housing complex with an internal parking garage between Seventh and Eighth streets on the north side of Locust Street. The complex is scheduled to open in August 2015.

The developer's proposal was introduced as an ordinance at a noontime, special City Council meeting on March 12. It received council approval one week later at another special City Council meeting March 19 in a 4-3 vote.

Root said the special meetings and agreements with developers came out of nowhere after City Manager Mike Matthes said in February that there would be no further downtown development.

The process used by the city was criticized by some council members and residents for its frenzied pace, according to previous Missourian reporting. Although the public was given two opportunities to comment on the Opus proposal, Root said the abbreviated process didn't give the public sufficient time to understand the environmental impact of the Opus project. During the March 17 public comment session, Root denounced the process that the city was using.

The petitioners are not asking for the repeal of the Collegiate Housing Partners development agreement because that project went through the proper public-input process last year, Root said.

The petition reads, in part, "In using a hasty and extraordinary method for consideration and passage of this ordinance, ... Council has unreasonably limited or excluded adequate public participation in these decisions and elevated private interests over the interests of the constituents that they have been elected to serve."

Root said that, during the public hearings last week, Mayor Bob McDavid repeatedly allowed representatives of developers the five minutes for public comment that are customarily given to an issue's stakeholders; however, he didn't offer the same amount of time to members of the public. Developers were also given the opportunity to field questions from council members after their allotted time had expired, something Root said the public was not allowed to do.

“It was clear that public input was not being placed on the same plateau as that of the proponents of the developments," he said.

According to Section 128 of the Columbia City Charter, the public has until 20 days after an ordinance is passed to submit a petition to the city clerk. City Clerk Sheela Amin said this petition would need at least 3,209 signatures by April 8 for it to be considered valid.

In order for a petition to be considered valid, according to the charter, the number of signatures it receives must be at least a quarter of the number of people who voted in the last mayoral election. There were 12,835 votes cast in the 2013 mayoral election, according to the Boone County Clerk's website.

If the petitioners received the number of signatures needed by April 8, the city clerk's office and the Boone County clerk's office would verify that the signers are Columbia voters, according to Amin.

Once the signatures are verified, the ordinance would go back to the Columbia City Council for a vote on whether or not it should be repealed. If the council choses to uphold the ordinance, it would be voted on by the public at the next scheduled election, according to Section 133 of the City Charter.

The council narrowly approved the development on a 4-3 vote. Outgoing First Ward  Councilman Fred Schmidt voted to approve the development proposal. But his successor will be chosen on April 8. 

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said that the outcome of the April 8 election could have an impact on the proposal's future, if the petition were to return the ordinance to council.

"I cannot speak for any of the other Council Members, but in my opinion, if the initiative petition to rescind B62-14 was successful in reaching the Council I would vote, just as I had before, to deny the Opus Development (and I assume, though I have no way of knowing that Ms. Hoppe and Mr. Thomas, would reaffirm their vote to deny)," he said.

Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said that he would consider constituent feedback and other factors before deciding whether he'd vote to repeal the ordinance.

Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp, who voted in favor of the proposal, said he would stand by his vote if the ordinance came back before the council.

Supervising editor is Edward Hart.

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Jack Hamm March 27, 2014 | 7:34 a.m.

These people have lost their minds. What on Earth gives them the idea that they can tell others what they can do with their property? As long as the development meets zoning code (which it does) you don't get to tell them yes or no. The "community" does not get to pick who gets to go into business and who does not. Last time I checked this was still a free country contrary to what Mr Skala, Mr Thomas, and Mrs Hoppe seem to think.

(Report Comment)
Glenn Rice March 27, 2014 | 9:59 a.m.

Evidently the previous commenter didn't read either the story or the petition. The petition refers to rescinding City Council's improper action, not "tell[ing] others what they can do with their property".

Part of living in a free country is that citizens get to petition to try to change things they don't like. Some people object to that kind of freedom and want only their own kind.

(Report Comment)
pat fowler March 27, 2014 | 11:34 a.m.

Mr. Hamm, If you had sewage in your basement, or your backyard because of an adjacent manhole cover that regularly overflows, would you want to city to fix the problem in your neighborhood before they promise expanded sewer and electric, at an uncertain cost, to a developer? The fast track preferential treatment the city offered, after 6 or 7 non- public meetings between the developer and the Mayor, is what we are protesting. (Check the Mayor's comments on both March 17 and March 19, where he talks about his multiple meetings with the developer.)

(Report Comment)
pat fowler March 27, 2014 | 11:38 a.m.

By the way, for that very reason, I am carrying the petition and collecting signatures. If you know me, find me so you can sign too. I'll be out and about for the next 10 days, after church, at the Farmer's Market, and going door to door.

My neighbors should not have to live, another year, with sewage in their basements, while we add to the problem and perhaps create more that we were not anticipating.

Thank you.

(Report Comment)
DeAnna Walkenbach March 27, 2014 | 11:53 a.m.

Just a few weeks ago the City Manager announced that we are out of infrastructure in the area in which the approved developments are planning to build. I have to assume this is true today as well. So, how can the Council approve development agreements that state the city will provide the necessary infrastructure? I have heard at council meetings from staff, time and time again, that the estimate for these improvements is between 7 and 8 million dollars and THEY DON'T KNOW HOW WE WILL PAY FOR IT. On top of that this will still not fix all of the problems that have been ongoing for years in the 1st ward and the Old Southwest. Promises have been made to these property owners that have yet to be fulfilled. Don't they deserve to take priority?

Things needed to be slowed down until we had these problems solved. The public did not have a proper chance to vet these proposals, nor did the council.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams March 27, 2014 | 12:06 p.m.

Pat: Part of the problem is that many folks do not believe your underlying argument: "We have good ideas, and they have not been heard because this went through too fast."

Instead, after seeing this over and over again, many of us think the REAL argument is: "We don't have any good ideas, but we think this project is bad for reasons we will not specify, and we need more time to throw up roadblocks and obfuscate as much as we possibly can."

INO, you went to the well too many times and it's getting old.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams March 27, 2014 | 12:14 p.m.

GlennR: "Part of living in a free country is that citizens get to petition to try to change things they don't like."

This is true. I support the act of petitioning.

And part of living in a free country is that you may not get what you wish. "Losing" is always a potential outcome in a free society, especially a democratic one where you might be outnumbered.

(Report Comment)

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