GEORGE KENNEDY: Take a look at Plan B, which could help solve the city's problems

Thursday, June 12, 2014 | 4:10 p.m. CDT; updated 5:47 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 12, 2014

Just when we ought to be focused on worrying about the Cardinals and anticipating strawberry shortcake, it’s a painful distraction to contemplate the tangled mess that ensnares our City Council, multiple groups of engaged citizens and a developer or two.

One lawsuit has already been filed, a couple of others are threatened and two petitions aimed at undoing council action have been submitted. Monday’s council agenda promises more contention.

Meanwhile, the anything-goes zoning that covers downtown remains in place and our sanitary sewers are still filled beyond capacity when we get a good rain.

To me, the saddest and hardest-to-understand aspect of this civic tragedy is that most of the contending parties really are, or ought to be, on the same side.

For example, I’m willing to bet that council members don’t want to damage Rock Bridge Memorial State Park any more than do the environmentalists who are suing. For another, their votes have shown that at least a majority of council members support the principles of smart growth, including higher density and mixed-use development downtown.

And surely everybody understands that we have to find the money to repair and expand the sewer system, shifting to developers a bigger share of the costs of growth.

Maybe it’s time for all parties to take a deep breath and consider Plan B.

What’s that, you ask?

It’s the product of one of those strictly unofficial grassroots processes that contribute to making Columbia the interesting hometown it is. This two-year-old effort, not yet as well known as it deserves to be, is called “People’s Visioning” (not to be confused with the official, highly visible community conversation several years ago that produced the city’s current master plan).

Do a Google search, and you’ll find a few references, but you’ve probably only heard Plan B mentioned, if at all, when Monta Welch, the guiding visionary, makes one of her frequent references to its principles during public comment periods in council meetings. She speaks softly, and nobody seems to pay much attention. We should.

If we all did pay attention, I suspect the council and its critics — and most of us ordinary citizens — would agree with several, and perhaps all, of its seven steps.

  • Step One calls for the revision of our zoning code before we allow massive new developments we’ll likely live to regret. Sure, a revision is underway , but construction is ahead of it.
  • Step Two is a reminder to consider the “full definition of Smart Growth,”

    which has become a catch phrase when it should be a guideline.

  • Step Three proposes the adoption of energy-efficient building codes for both residential and commercial structures. To show what can be done, the Climate Change Coalition and Habitat for Humanity have collaborated to build a “net-zero” demonstration house.
  • Step Four is the common-sense idea of increasing development fees to cover the true costs of the infrastructure, hard and soft, that growth requires.
  • Step Five urges the council to “consider” the multiple proposals pushed by the indefatigable Bill Weitkemper to cut water consumption, bill for its use more equitably and pay for sewer improvements.
  • Step Six is a review of tax rates and utility fees to ensure adequacy and fairness.
  • Step Seven would increase transparency about city finances, with regular reports to the council and the public.

As always, of course, the devil is in the details. A determined critic can find something to disagree with in any proposal. But wouldn’t we all be better off if we were agreeing on those principles rather than arguing about whether to require retail shops on the ground floor of an apartment building?

P.S. I’ll be out of town and out of the paper for several weeks. I’m sure you’ll carry on nicely without me.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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