Housing project still stirs up dust

Neighbors of Forest Park South say blasting is the latest problem.
Monday, January 2, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:16 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The first explosions shook Keith Baumstark’s house and scared the daylights out of his 90-year-old mother-in-law. Baumstark said he was never notified that dynamite charges would pulverize the limestone hill about 200 yards from his house for the next month.

“It knocked our pictures off the wall and plates off a metal frame,” he said. Baumstark and his wife, Laura, are eight-year residents of a home on Rock Quarry Road, south of Nifong Boulevard.

The Baumstarks are witnessing the birth of Forest Park South. Last spring, the City Council and the city Planning and Zoning Commission approved a development that will put 80 single-family houses on 26 acres. With a swath of trees removed from the site, construction has entered the excavation phase.

“The site supervisor told me we wouldn’t even notice the detonations, but the intensity of the shock is just incredible,” said Fred Vomsaal, an MU professor of biology who lives a few hundred feet from the site. “It feels like an earthquake and makes our animals go hysterical.”

The blasting is the latest phase in a development plan that has provoked objections since its inception and left the city with no choice but approval because the land was already zoned for single-family houses.

Excess storm-water runoff, environmental risks and traffic hazards associated with Forest Park South remain a concern, and city officials are talking about making ordinance changes that would give the city more oversight of similar projects in the future.

Once it finishes preparing the site this spring, Rock Quarry Development Group plans to sell the land to housing developers. Chris Davis of Rock Quarry Development Group said landscaping will begin once the blasting is complete.

The subcontractor in charge of excavating scaled down the size of the dynamite charges at the neighbor’s request, but some residents on south Rock Quarry Road are more concerned about the ecology than the blasting.

“There is such a thing as ecologically appropriate building,” Vomsaal said, “but what the city approved is a massive alteration to a very sensitive ecosystem.”

Vomsaal, who researches the effects of toxic chemicals on humans and animals, remains deeply concerned about pollutants typical to building sites and parking lots making their way into surface waters.

The limestone hill is steep and densely wooded, and a subdivision carved into its peak will increase storm-water runoff and affect nearby streams, Vomsaal said. The site is about 100 yards from Clear Creek, which runs through Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.

These conditions prompted a visit to the site from Cindy DiStefano of the Department of Conservation, who photographed nearby creek beds and checked compliance with permit regulations. She expressed concern for the effects of the development on aquatic life in nearby streams.

Lance Tipton, an environmental specialist with the Department of Natural Resources, agreed there was a valid concern about increased storm-water runoff that will raise the levels of streams.

“It is an ecologically sensitive area,” Tipton said. “You would have pollutants if, say, cars leaked antifreeze or oil or something like that.”

Tipton plans to inspect the site for compliance on Tuesday; he believes contractors are meeting their legal obligations.

Pat Fitzgerald, chief of the development section in Columbia’s Public Works Department, said city planning officials were concerned with how the project might affect water quality in streams but said no ordinances are in place to require more protective measures.

Fitzgerald also cited traffic risks that will be aggravated by the new development. Plans call for a single access to the subdivision, and that street intersects near a blind S-curve along Rock Quarry Road. The area is frequented by joggers and cyclists, and the prospect of more than 100 cars funneling in and out of a single road worries nearby residents and city officials alike.

“The existing road there is small, narrow and curvy with some major sight-distance problems,” Fitzgerald said. Again, he said, local ordinances prevented officials from requiring that developers do more.

The city was unable to compel a more restrictive development plan primarily because of the zoning as an R-1, single-family dwelling district, Fitzgerald said. Such zoning imposes less stringent guidelines on the development, which is in the Bonne Femme watershed, than if it were zoned as PUD, or planned unit development.

PUD zoning would allow the city to require more tree preservation, limit the amount of pavement and other impervious surfaces and address water runoff issues, Fitzgerald said. But because the property was zoned R-1 when Rock Quarry Development Group purchased it, there is no legal requirement for rezoning before the housing is developed, former planning commissioner Karl Skala was quoted as saying in minutes from the Planning and Zoning Commission’s April meeting.

Under Columbia’s City Code, only the owner of the property is authorized to initiate a rezoning process. If a developer meets the letter of city requirements, the City Council has an administrative duty to approve the plan, according to city attorney Fred Boeckmann during the April City Council meeting to review the plan.

Both the council and the planning commission were unhappy with the Forest Park South project but reached the same conclusion before giving approval: that their hands were tied.

“I think it’s a terrible plan, but I cannot vote against it just because of that,” Skala was quoted as saying during the commission’s April meeting. “Hopefully, the message will get across and something can be done about it.”

Davis said the development group is complying with all ordinances and taking measures to address the site’s problems. The group will build about 1,000 feet of sidewalk on Rock Quarry Road to increase pedestrian safety.

The developer group will also dig three storm-water detention basins to minimize runoff and downstream flooding, although Davis said the basins would not protect water quality. Davis said the basins would cost $100,000 and noted his group is under no legal obligation to construct them.

The five to six months it would have taken to rezone the land for planned development was too long, Davis said. “It was in our best interests to move the project along as quickly as possible.”

Davis added that developers wanted to keep the houses affordable and said planned zoning would have given the city too much control over the monetary viability of the property.

“People who have no financial stake in a project should not put in arbitrary restrictions which they don’t understand,” Davis said.

Davis opposes any ordinance changes to deal with future situations of this type. “Columbia is going to grow, and it needs to be allowed to do so,” he said.

Vomsaal sees things differently. “To have the council say they are powerless to prevent this is just irresponsible,” he said. “If the rules aren’t working, then they should change the rules.”

Fitzgerald said city government is working to modify its laws. “We are preparing ordinances that will address water quality, post-construction management and so forth, for all types of zoning, although those are aways off.”

Fitzgerald believes it is not enough that the city impose erosion and sediment control only on the construction phase of development. “Columbia is actually 12 to 15 years ahead of other cities in requiring even this,” he said. “We’ve been real progressive in this area, but now there’s a need to move into other issues.”

Nevertheless, city planner Chuck Bondra has doubts that significant change will occur.

“That’s politically difficult to do if the council chambers are filled with developers, Realtors, and chambers of commerce people who don’t necessarily want ordinances changed,” Bondra said. “Most people who do want change don’t show up to city meetings, but the developers are there and have more sway. That’s the way it is.”

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