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."