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.
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