The Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing during its regular meeting Thursday to decide on the proposed rezoning and annexation of a 65.5-acre property at the corner of East Gans and South Bearfield roads, adjacent to the state park’s Gans Creek Wild Area.
Rob Hill, the developer behind Rock Bridge Estates, hopes to build a 113-home residential development in this area and is also seeking approval of the preliminary plat for the neighborhood. The proposal has sparked concern from Friends of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park and others who worry about the development’s impact on the area’s environment and on Gans and Clear creeks, which are part of the larger Bonne Femme Creek watershed.
City staff recommended approval of the rezoning and annexation, but the preliminary plat for the neighborhood has come under scrutiny by members of Friends of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.
The commission voted 7-1 to deny both the rezoning request and the preliminary plat.
Opponents of the plans worried about the runoff from the development into the Gans Creek area, as well as light pollution and noise. They were also concerned about the density of the proposed development, which would currently have 1.7 houses per acre with the side of the development that drains towards the park having a lesser density of 0.67 houses per acre.
Kevin Roberson, president of Friends of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, wanted the density to be lowered to one house for every 2.5 acres.
Hill said a housing density that low would cause the development to lose money and is standing strong on the issue of density. Hill is actually a member of Friends of Rock Bridge and believes his goals are "diametrically opposed" to those of the group. "I want to develop and disturb the land to let people have places to live, and they don’t want the land being disturbed at all," Hill said.
Of the 279 pages of public opposition to the plan, most of the complaints center around storm water runoff into the wilderness area. Roberson has requested that Hill reduce the amount of impervious surface, or area in the development that causes water to run off such as sidewalks and pavements, from the current 25% in the preliminary plat to 15%.
Hill’s engineering team plans to manage runoff from the property using controlled lakes and a dry basin. There are two detention lakes in the proposed plan, one that is 7.12 acres and one that is 1.79 acres.
People on the opposition worried about the effect this development might have on the high biological diversity, including endangered species, of the watershed.
There were also concerns about the potential that a neighborhood of this density will cause more light and noise and the effects it could have on wildlife.
"My daughter had her first hike there this past summer, it was awesome, there was no noise," one speaker recalled. "We still see bats in the area because there's no light pollution. If this development is there, we won't see them anymore."
Roberson appeared to speak on behalf of his group, mentioning that one-third of visitors to the wild area in 2020 were from out of state, bringing income to the state.
"If there's one area that deserves protection, it's Gans Creek Wild Area. If this doesn't fit the bill, I don't know what does," Roberson said. "This wild area is truly a jewel, it's something people drive hours and hours to get to. We have it right in our backyard, and we're willing to develop it and give it up just so someone can make a bunch of money? Come on."
Jim Gast, a director of Friends of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, appeared to speak and also focused on the problems of storm water runoff, light pollution and traffic.
"The whole purpose of a wild area is to be able to go somewhere and not have to see, or hear, human influences," Gast said.
Another speaker mentioned the tradition she has with her daughter of taking a deep breath at the mouth of a trail on Rock Bridge to take in the atmosphere of the park.
"The Earth continues to give, we continue to take," said Sutu Forté, president of It's Our Wild Nature. "What do we give back to Mother Earth? We are stressing our wildlife to the max. We are to live in balance with nature, and we're way beyond that. We have taken way too much. It is time that we begin to give back. The wildlife, the earth, it depends on it. They can't come to the microphone."
Tim Crockett, owner of Crockett Engineering, spoke after all of the opposition and rebuked many of the points made against Canton Estates. He noted that they meet all the city's requirements, have large buffers to prevent runoff into the wilderness area and that there are developments that are closer to Gans Creek than Canton Estates would be.
Commissioner Michael MacMann mentioned the trust issues between the public and the developer, as well as fears that the city will not take care of runoff well during construction.
Commissioner Sharon Geuea Jones said that there's nothing to hold the developers to what they say and that planned development zoning exists for unique properties like this area, which is adjacent to a nature reserve. Crockett said he does believe it is unique but that the storm water manual does not require any more than what has already been laid out in the preliminary plat.