Developer threatens legal action over petition on downtown Columbia apartments

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 6:05 p.m. CDT; updated 2:32 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 7, 2014

COLUMBIA — A lawyer representing Opus Development Co. has threatened legal action if a petition designed to halt the construction of a student-housing project is presented to Columbia City Council.

Attorney Robert Hollis wrote in a letter sent to City Manager Mike Matthes that the petition — which was submitted by a group of citizens to halt the proposed six-story, 256-bed student housing development — has no legal force.

If the city fails to render the petition invalid, Opus reserves its right to pursue breach-of-contract damages that it estimates could be more than $5 million, according to the letter.

The letter explains the development agreement is not changing any existing law, just formalizing Opus' contributions toward water and sewer utilities needed to serve the project. Once those were approved by council, the permission to build was a normal "administrative act."

The letter from Opus asserts that the proposed building site on Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth streets would be in keeping with the existing C-2 zoning. It also says the agreement approved by the City Council for financing utility work makes the project exempt from any future changes to that zoning classification.

C-2 zoning downtown has no restrictions on height and no requirements for parking; the city is considering changes to C-2 that would address those issues.

The letter says that "Actions relating to subjects of a permanent and general character are legislative ... Simply stated, legislative acts make new law or policy that is generally applicable; administrative acts execute existing law or policy."

Opus agreed as part of the development agreement to pay $200,000 for reconstruction of a sewer main that connects to the main downtown line. The developer also agreed to pay $250,000 for water utilities to serve the project, as well as replacing the existing storm sewers.

The Columbia City Council approved the development agreement with Opus on March 19. Twenty days later, on April 8, a group of residents filed a petition to repeal the ordinance — Ordinance 62-14 — citing a lack of public input while it was being considered by the council.

Jeremy Root, an attorney who helped start the petition process, said he thought the legal theory behind the Opus letter was "dubious."

"The charter does not limit the referendum power to 'legislative acts'," Root said.

Signatures on the petitions are being validated by the Boone County Clerk's Office, which has 30 days to declare whether the petition is valid. As of Wednesday, the validation was not complete.

If the petition is considered valid, the City Council would have to act on it within 30 days, according to the city charter. If the ordinance isn't repealed by the City Council, it would be voted on by the public.

Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp on Thursday declined to comment on the letter itself but said the council plans to discuss it during a closed session at its meeting Monday night.

A statement released to the Missourian on Thursday afternoon by a spokeswoman from Opus President Dave Menke read in part: "This project will provide a high-quality living space for the university community, create hundreds of new jobs, infuse millions of dollars into the City’s economy and provide for at least a 700 percent increase in tax revenues attributable to the property."


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Jack Hamm April 18, 2014 | 7:58 a.m.

Not really a shocker. Are Mr. Root, Pat Fowler, and all the other geniuses who signed this ridiculous petition going to foot the bill when the city loses? Or will this just be another case of a vocal minority in Columbia trying to push their extreme agenda and costing the average tax payer millions?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz April 18, 2014 | 9:23 a.m.

While I'm not necessarily in favor of the petition, to degrade those who exercised their rights under the city charter is itself ridiculous.

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm April 18, 2014 | 9:47 a.m.

They are not exercising their rights; they are trying to restrict the rights of others. I am actually shocked that a libertarian would not put off by their actions.

The Opus development was already zoned and they have rights to pursue their plans within the confines of the law which they are comfortably within. The people behind this petition distorted an infrastructure issue into an opportunity for them to decide who gets to go into business. They want to pick and chose winners and losers. That goes against so much of what has made this country successful.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 18, 2014 | 10:49 a.m.

"They want to pick and chose [sic] winners and losers. That goes against so much of what has made this has country successful."

It most certainly does.

The situation isn't confined to the state of Missouri or to Columbia. We now have the federal government picking winners and losers, but it appears our federal government is incapable in many cases of telling [expletive deleted] from shoe polish when it comes to making their selections.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams April 18, 2014 | 5:52 p.m.

I think Jack Hamm is spot on with his analysis and sentiment.

We have lots of folks urging on a couple of local lawsuits, hoping that the plaintiffs take the city for a bunch of money. Of course, most of those same folks probably won't foot much of the bill.

But, if the spirit of joining the fun, I hope Opus takes the city to the cleaners if this petition goes through. Perhaps the petitioners can get involved with paying, also, as suggested by Jack.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 18, 2014 | 6:46 p.m.

@ Michael:

Jack calls 'em as he sees 'em. In my book that's good.

As far as the Opus affair is concerned I no longer have a horse in the race. It is of no concern to me who might win, in the sense that if the city loses I won't have to pay.

On the other hand, who will pay the bill(s) if either or both the suits involving death of a fireman and rape and subsequent death of a female athlete go against MU? I won't need to pay, but who will? MU? The System? Special funding from the Legislature? Obviously, somebody will have to pay up if the suits are lost.

May we assume that someone is minding the store at our "Flagship Campus"? Ah yes, the good ship "Titanic Tiger."

(Report Comment)

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