COLUMBIA — The group petitioning to stop the construction of a student-housing project responded Thursday to the project developer's threat of legal action if the petition reaches the Columbia City Council.
In a letter to City Manager Mike Matthes and City Counselor Nancy Thompson, the group told the city not to respond to "hollow threats" made by Columbia lawyer Robert Hollis, who represents Opus, in his letter to the city. The petitioning group said it was exercising a right that it didn't "take lightly."
The reply letter was written by Columbia lawyers Jeremy Root and Josh Oxenhandler, both of whom were present when the group protesting the student housing project handed in its petitions to City Clerk Sheela Amin on April 8. The petitioners said the council had passed the agreement without the proper public input process.
The reply said "Opus has the absolute right to do nothing under the Development Agreement and walk away from the project," and "its allegations of millions of dollars in damage should be seen merely as hollow threats."
Root said the reply letter is referencing a provision in the development agreement Opus has with the city that says "this Agreement shall terminate and the terms and provisions shall be null, void, and of no force or effect and the Parties shall have no further obligations hereunder if Commencement of Construction has not occurred by September 1, 2014."
The reply letter cites a decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals that said citizens have the right to repeal administrative actions enacted through ordinance and that limiting the ability of citizens to do so would be a "too restrictive interpretation of the character of the ordinance."
Hollis referred to the same court case in his letter, but he argued that this right to repeal ordinances is limited to certain types of government action. Hollis said referendum petitions apply only to legislative acts and "are not applicable to those dealing with administrative or executive matters." He said the agreement with the city is only an "administrative act" and can't be repealed by a referendum petition.
Opus released a statement to the Missourian on Friday afternoon that said in part: "The city followed due process in entering into a binding development agreement with Opus. That process included three hearings on the project and more than two hours of testimony from numerous individuals. The hearings and testimony are available for public scrutiny at the City of Columbia’s website."
The statement also said the company needs to acquire the land needed for the project by May in order for construction to be complete by its scheduled opening at the start of the 2015-16 academic year. The company said it has already invested significantly in the project and would "incur substantial losses" if the project does not move forward.
Thompson declined to comment on either letter, saying, "I don't comment on anything that relates to pending or threatened litigation."
The matter is expected to be discussed during a closed Columbia City Council meeting on Monday at Daniel Boone City Building. The council passed the development agreement as an ordinance on March 19 allowing the construction of a six-story, 256-bed apartment building on Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth streets.
Opus President Dave Menke, other Opus representatives and Hollis are scheduled to give testimony during a public hearing at the council meeting Monday.