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TIMELINE: The latest in the Opus downtown development cases

Friday, September 19, 2014 | 5:30 p.m. CDT; updated 5:15 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 22, 2014

COLUMBIA — Opus Development Co.'s proposal to build a six-story, 259-bed student apartment building on Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth streets downtown has created a civic drama that has unfolded over several months.

After two referendum petitions failed to block the project, it became the subject of a civil rights lawsuit that's pending in federal court. However, Betty Wilson and Michael MacMann's claim failed to stop the project. U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey ruled that the city could issue Opus building permits without violating the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights.

Those permits were issued Sept. 10.

Wilson and MacMann filed a second lawsuit against the city of Columbia, City Manager Mike Matthes and Opus on Sept. 11, arguing that the city's issuance of permits for demolition and construction was illegal. That case is pending in the 13th Circuit Court.

The Missourian has created this docket-style report to keep readers up to speed on the case.

New developments will be added to the top of this file as they occur. Click on the hyperlinks in the text to view the documents filed by the attorneys. The links in parentheses are to related Missourian coverage. Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see how it all unfolded from the beginning.

Sept. 22

What happened: Opus attorney Thomas Harrison files two identical motions to allow two Minneapolis attorneys, Charles Rogers and Jason Asmus, to be allowed to practice in the case. Both attorneys are admitted and allowed to practice in the civil rights lawsuit. 

Sept. 19

What happened: Opus attorney Thomas Harrison files a memorandum to the court that states the plaintiffs' request for a temporary restraining order should be denied, referring to the reasons lined out in the suggestions against the restraining order filed Monday.

Sept. 18

What happened: Boone County Presiding Judge Jodie Asel assigns Boone County Circuit Judge Christine Carpenter to the case. Carpenter also presided over MacMann and Wilson's civil rights lawsuit before the city's attorney, Christopher Rackers, removed it to federal court.

Sept. 16

What happened: U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey issues an order in the civil rights case that says the parties must file a joint scheduling order/scheduling plan by Oct. 7. That plan would set a timeline for the remainder of the case and discuss how long a jury trial would take, if there were to be one.

Sept. 15

What happened: Crews begin work at the Opus site a few minutes after 7 a.m. Monday. First, workers knock out storefront windows with a crowbar.  Later, a backhoe demolishes what used to be Chong's Oriental Market.

The motion hearing on the temporary restraining order is canceled after the plaintiffs file a motion to request a change of judge. The city of Columbia files a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. It argues that the plaintiffs' first lawsuit is identical to the current one, and, as a result, the first case has jurisdiction, and the second lawsuit should be dismissed. 

Opus files suggestions in opposition to the plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order. It says the lawsuit is designed to stop the project, and if it does, Opus will sustain losses of at least $5 million.

Those suggestions also say the plaintiffs' assertion that there isn't adequate sanitary sewer capacity for the project is "factually baseless" and contradicted by evidence on the record, and that there have been changes to downtown sewer capacity since February. The suggestions cite a recent city report that says stormwater flowing into the downtown sewer has been reduced. It also argues that the plaintiffs' argument that the site's owner, HSRE-ODC II MIZZOU, LLC, needed to obtain the building permit is "legally and factually erroneous."

(click here for related coverage)

Sept 12.

What happened: Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane grants a temporary restraining order and then sets it aside. According to plaintiffs' attorney Josh Oxenhandler, Crane's decision to set aside was made in the Columbia Country Club parking lot.

(click here for related coverage)

Sept. 11

What happened: Attorney Jeremy Root files another lawsuit in Boone County Circuit Court that says the city acted illegally and in an "arbitary and capricious manner" when it issued demolition and construction permits on Sept. 10. Root asks the court to declare the permits void, to prevent the city from taking any further action on the Opus project until at least Feb. 18 and to prevent any construction on the apartment complex until adequate utilities are in place. Root also files a motion for a temporary restraining order.

(Click here for related coverage.)

Sept. 5

What happened: U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey rules that the city can issue permits to Opus and that wouldn't violate MacMann's and Wilson's First Amendment rights. In her ruling, she denies the plaintiffs' request that the city be blocked from issuing Opus permits for six months or until sufficient infrastructure is in place.

Despite the fact that Opus can now proceed, the case isn't over. The city files an answer to the 97 "facts" laid out in the original lawsuit.

Why it matters: Once utilities are shut off to the site, Opus can receive building and demolition permits and begin construction.

(click here for related coverage.)

Sept. 4

The parties and Laughrey discuss the restraining order for more than a hour Thursday, and the hearing ends with no ruling. Laughrey says she needs more time to think about the restraining order and says something needs to be done before the restraining order expires at 5 p.m. Friday. A private teleconference among the parties and Laughrey follows the hearing.

The proceedings Thursday focus on the plaintiffs' and intervenors' competing claims about whether there's sufficient infrastructure, particularly sanitary sewer, to serve the project.

Plaintiffs' attorney Jeremy Root claims there has been no substantial change in sewer capacity downtown since February, when a lack of capacity caused the city to negotiate the first development agreement with Opus. He also noted that no downtown development has been able to proceed without contributing to infrastructure costs since February, and that the city's decision to let Opus proceed without a development agreement is designed to avoid the referendum process.

Both of the city's repealed agreements with Opus contained a $200,000 contribution toward sanitary sewer infrastructure and $250,000 for widening water mains.

Opus attorney Jason Asmus argues that infrastructure issues have been resolved and that a development agreement is not mandatory for the project to proceed. He also argues the plaintiffs' request that the city be blocked from issuing permits for six months is not related to their civil rights claim.

MU law professor Richard Reuben, who has signed on with the plaintiffs as a consultant, said the private teleconference likely discussed sensitive information that Laughrey didn't want the public to hear. The teleconference, he said, is the equivalent of attorneys being summoned to a judge's chambers. 

Sept. 3

What happened: Opus attorney Harrison files a reply to plaintiffs' attorney Jeremy Root's Sept. 2 argument, saying the restraining order should be dissolved. He argues there's sufficient infrastructure to support the apartment project, despite Root's assertion. Otherwise, he says, the city wouldn't have entered into the since-repealed development agreements.

Harrison also notes sewer capacity issues only occur during a heavy rain and the Columbia City Council has approved projects that will expand electric and sanitary sewer capacity downtown. If the restraining order remains in effect, he says, the plaintiffs should be required to post significantly more than the $100 bond they've already posted.

Harrison submits an affidavit from City Manager Mike Matthes that gives a timeline of the Opus project since March and says there is adequate infrastructure to serve the project. Another affidavit from Opus Senior Director of Real Estate Development Joseph Downs is submitted, too. Downs' affidavit mentions a May 28 negotiation session among Opus, Root, who was a spokesman for the petitioning group, and another plaintiffs' attorney Josh Oxenhandler.

Sept. 2

What happened: Root argues against dissolving the restraining order, stating there will be insufficient utilities for the project by its August 2015 completion date. He also argues that case law establishes the need for a restraining order because the city's issuance of permits, despite two successful referendum petitions opposing the project, would be a clear violation of the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights. Opus has until 5 p.m. Sept. 3 to reply.

Also, the city's attorney, Christopher Rackers, files a response to the plaintiffs' motion for sanctions. That motion, which was made in state court,  asserted the city violated the restraining order by marking the site's utility connections with spray paint. Rackers argues the spray painting is not facilitating the development and is instead required by state law. He asks Laughrey to dismiss the plaintiffs' motion for sanctions.

Aug. 29

What happened: U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey rules that Opus could intervene in the case for the sole purpose of fighting the restraining order. She sets deadlines for written arguments to be filed by Opus and the plaintiffs and sets a hearing for 3 p.m. Sept. 4. She also extends the restraining order by one day. It is now due to expire on Sept. 5.

(click here for related coverage.)

Aug. 28

What happened: Thomas Harrison, the Opus attorney, argues again that Opus should be allowed to enter the case, saying the lawsuit is not about civil rights but instead is designed to scuttle the apartment project. Laughrey schedules a hearing on the matter for Friday.

(click here for related coverage)

Aug. 27

What happened: Root files the plaintiffs' response to Opus' motion to intervene, stating the defendants, the city and Matthes would protect Opus' interests. Laughrey orders Opus to reply by the end of the day Aug. 28.

(click here for related coverage)

Aug. 26

What happened: Harrison files a motion asking the court to speed up the process by requiring a faster response from the plaintiffs to his motion to intervene. Time is of the essence if the Opus project is to succeed, he argues.

(click here for related coverage)

Aug. 22

What happened: Root files an emergency motion to extend the restraining order, which is scheduled to expire Aug. 25. After a teleconference hearing, Laughrey extends the restraining order by 10 days. She states, though, that "the (temporary restraining order) does not apply to emergency actions necessary for the safety of persons and preservation of property."

Harrison also files motions to allow Opus and its partner to intervene, to dissolve the restraining order and to allow out-of-state attorneys Charles Rogers and Jason Asmus to work on the case.

(Click here for related coverage)

Aug. 21

What happened: The city's attorney, Rackers, moves the case to the U.S. District Court, Western District of Missouri. The case is assigned to an outside mediator.

Why it matters: The notices that Rackers filed said the alleged violations of the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights gives the federal court jurisdiction. The mediation, meanwhile, is designed to allow parties to reach a settlement before attorneys' fees make that impossible.

Aug. 19

What happened: Springfield attorney Joseph Sheppard joins the plaintiffs' legal team.

Why it matters: Sheppard represented Maranda Reynolds, Show-Me State Cannabis Regulation Inc. and the American Victory Coalition in a civil rights case against the city of Springfield. The plaintiffs in that case filed a similar lawsuit after the marijuana law they put forth by initiative petition was repealed by the Springfield City Council instead of being placed on the ballot. The city settled the case by paying $225,000 to the plaintiffs.

(Click here for related coverage)

Aug. 18

What happened: Root files a motion for sanctions against the city for violating the restraining order, citing a Missourian article that mentions that a city employee marked the site's utility connections with spray paint while the restraining order was in effect.

(Click here for related coverage)

Aug. 15

What happened: Harrison files a motion to allow Opus and its partner company, HSRE ODC II MIZZOU, LLC, to intervene in the case and to dissolve the restraining order.

(Click here for related coverage)

Aug. 13

What happened: Boone County Circuit Judge Christine Carpenter issues a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from any actions on the Opus project other than voting on the repeal of the second development agreement.

Why it matters: As a result, the city couldn't issue permits Opus needs to proceed with demolition of buildings on the Locust Street site or to begin construction.

(Click here for related coverage)

Aug. 12

What happened: Wilson and MacMann file the suit against the city and Matthes, alleging the city's actions regarding the proposed Opus Development Co. project violate their rights to referendum and free speech. The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights would be immediately and irreparably harmed if the project were allowed to proceed.

Why it matters: The document provides a timeline of the Opus project and the utility issues surrounding it that prompted the city to pass two development agreements for the project. The agreements — which were both repealed by the council after referendum petitions were submitted against each — exchanged $450,000 toward off-site sewer and water projects in exchange for permission to proceed. The plaintiffs signed and helped circulate both petitions. It also alleges that the city's actions violated MacMann and Wilson's rights by passing the second development agreement with Opus while the first was being petitioned against and when the city stated in a news release the project would still proceed with the second petition process ongoing.


Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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