COLUMBIA — An initiative petition by citizens to overturn an agreement between city government and a developer for high-density apartments downtown has been ruled invalid.
City Clerk Sheela Amin notified Jeremy Root, the petition group's spokesman, and Josh Oxenhandler, the group's attorney, that the petition was lacking in signatures.
After being told the petitions fell 91 signatures short of the required 3,209, organizers on Friday morning said they'll gather additional signatures and continue to press for repeal of an ordinance to accommodate plans by Opus Development Co. for a six-story apartment complex with 256 beds on Locust Street.
The Opus project drew ire when the decision-making process was hurried on a deal between developers and the city for infrastructure expenses.
“Out of respect for participation in this effort, we’re going to gather the additional signatures,” Root said Friday morning. “We’ve always been committed to seeing the referendum process through to its conclusion.”
Root said he believes the group will have 14 days, as provided in the City Charter, to gather enough signatures to make the petition binding. He said he would be meeting with Amin on Friday afternoon to discuss specifics about completing the petition drive.
The petition would force the City Council to vote on repealing the Opus agreement. Otherwise, the repeal ordinance would be put to a public vote.
New agreement on table
The ruling on the petitions came the same week that newly elected First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick proposed a new agreement with Opus that would begin the public decision-making process anew.
Her proposed ordinance, which would replace the agreement that's the focus of repeal efforts, will be introduced when the City Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday in the Daniel Boone City Building.
The new agreement will go through the usual City Council procedures for an ordinance with a first reading Monday and a public hearing May 19 at which time the council could vote, Chadwick said.
"It's about the will of the people, and that's why I'm moving this project forward in the way I am," Chadwick said.
The first Opus agreement was introduced during a special session at noon on a Wednesday. A week later, the agreements went to a vote during another special session at noon on a Wednesday after a public hearing. There was another public hearing two days earlier during the regularly scheduled council meeting March 17.
Finances of the new agreement remain unchanged: Opus would pay $450,000 toward water and sewer utilities. Under the new agreement, Opus would include nonresidential uses on the ground floor.
"Opus has been way more receptive to my requests in improving the project than I thought they would be," Chadwick said.
Citizens mount repeal effort
On April 8, 20 days after the City Council approved the Opus agreement, residents critical of the decision-making process and questioning downtown infrastructure capacity submitted repeal petitions.
The petition called the process "hasty and extraordinary" and said the council had "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."
After Opus threatened to file suit against the city if it ruled the petition valid, Chadwick engineered the new proposed agreement.
Opus went through an "abnormal process," and "people had a problem with that," Chadwick said.
When she asked the petitioners what they wanted when she negotiated with Opus, Chadwick said, they asked for the normal decision-making process to be followed because they felt that was what the petition asked for.
"I think the petition group is a way for citizens to tell the city they are unhappy with the process that the city has taken," Chadwick said. "It is imperative for us, as representatives of the people, to listen to that."
Opus, round one
The council used two noontime special meetings to consider and pass agreements with Opus and Collegiate Housing Partners for apartments with 351 beds on Conley Avenue between Fifth and Fourth streets.
The Collegiate Housing Partners project received unanimous council approval; in 2013, the developer abandoned its plans to demolish the historic Niedermeyer apartments and build a 10-story apartment building, and instead sought another site that led to the Conley Avenue location.
The Opus agreement was approved on a 4-to-3 vote. First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt, who voted with the majority, was replaced in the April election by Chadwick, who said she would have sided with the opposition on the grounds that the Opus project did not have nonresidential uses on the first floor in keeping with the Columbia Imagined plan.
Ordinances are routinely considered over the course of two weeks, introduced at a regular Monday night meeting then vetted with a public hearing and possible vote two weeks later.
Root said the new deal with Opus addresses concerns about the decision-making process, but not the project's impact on downtown infrastructure and the environment.
Downtown infill, the unknown methods of how the city was going to pay for aging downtown infrastructure and a weariness over the increasing number of student residents downtown were other factors in people signing the petitions, Root said.
Root said those issues, especially how to fund sewer infrastructure, need to be addressed to expect the petition group's support of Opus on its second go-round.
"My fear is that they’re embarking down a road that they’ve already determined an outcome, and any concerns of the public won’t be given meaningful answers in the time allowed," Root said earlier this week.
The group's attorney, Josh Oxenhandler, said the petitioners "forced the city and the developer to start over and renegotiate their deal under the scrutiny of public comment and opinion. But there is a bigger picture here: critical infrastructure for our downtown and its neighbors."
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