With two newcomers, P&Z commission faces overhaul
Jeff Barrow, acting chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, was only half joking when he answered the question on the minds of many businesspeople in Columbia: Now that both the Columbia City Council and “P&Z” have two new members who support more controls on growth, should developers be worried about the changing dynamics?
“I think they should be frightened, very frightened,” Barrow said with a laugh.
Continuing in a more serious tone, he said, “Any time that there’s change, it scares people. The bankers are basing their loans on what the conventional methods have been, so any time you start to change things, it just adds an element of fear. But without fear, there’s no courage, and I think we have a very courageous development community here who should embrace this and make it work for them.”
After the April election that brought former P&Z commissioners Jerry Wade and Karl Skala to the Columbia City Council, the council members had to fill three seats on the P&Z Commission, and had an unprecedented number of candidates—21—from which to choose. They picked Barrow, for a third five-year term, and two neighborhood activists: Helen Anthony, an attorney from the Boston area who moved to Columbia three years ago, and Ann Peters, who was born and raised here, left after college to run a business and returned three years ago.
Now Wade said he plans to push for a complete overhaul of the city’s planning and zoning system.
“There was complete consensus that the system is broken and needs to be redesigned,” he said. “What we’re looking for are things that improve efficiency without losing the legitimacy of the process.”
Don Stamper, executive director of the Central Missouri Development Council, said he is concerned that the selection of these new P&Z members showed a further public turn toward an anti-growth philosophy.
“My sense is that they represent a specific agenda, but I don’t know that for a fact,” he said. “[The Central Missouri Development Council is] always concerned about balance. Balance is the most important, and in the council there has been a significant shift. People ran as progressive, middle-of-the-road candidates, and that’s not what they are. So I think that it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that the Planning and Zoning Commission is a reflection of the council.”
Mayor Darwin Hindman says he expects “fresh ideas” to be presented but predicts little change in the outlook of the P&Z Commission. “The Planning and Zoning Commission has been made up of conscientious people in the past, and these are conscientious people,” he said. “There wasn’t absolute agreement on the choices, but no serious disagreement. I think everybody is happy with the appointments. [The new members] have excellent backgrounds.”
Asked whether the development community should be afraid, Hindman said, “No, but the development community should be on its toes.” The reason, he said, was not because of changes on the P&Z Commission but because of a growing community reaction to perceived development abuses such as the land clearing that took place at the eastern end of Stadium Boulevard. “You can have developers do a really good job all over the place and then have two or three abuses, and that is what catches the community’s attention.”
Laura Nauser, 5th Ward City Council representative, said she is concerned because Columbia has not attracted any new major industries or employers for some time and she worries that the city relies too much on sales tax to fund capital improvements. She said Columbians need to remember that the maintenance of the city’s amenities is expensive and that the business community has paid for the expense in the past.
“There are people in this community who are anti-development; I’ve had them even come up to me and say ‘We need to stop building houses,’” Nauser said. “I’m thinking, ‘That’s fine for you to say; you’ve got a house.’ That’s not really fair to anybody else who wants to move here and enjoy our amenities and this part of the country.”
Much of the recent concern in the development community about “anti-development” tendencies results from the perception that some council members are pushing to shift the costs of neighborhood improvements and stormwater systems onto developers, Nauser said. “There is probably a new shift on the council [regarding] who is going to bear a greater cost of development, which ultimately trickles down to the consumer,” she said. “That is a concern of the real estate community—higher prices of houses that could slow growth in that area.”
With the two P & Z newcomers, three of the nine commission members are female, and Barrow said that fact alone will bring some change. “We were for a long time a bunch of middle-aged white guys,” Barrow said. “And now almost half of the commissioners are women. That’s unprecedented.”
Why all the interest in the P&Z? According to Barrow, Columbia has reached a pivotal time in its development. The city’s growth is accelerating, he said, as seen in recent annexations that were the three or four largest ever for the city. “It seems like we’re starting to grow in leaps and bounds instead of just baby steps,” he said. “The typical issues are where we grow, how fast we grow, who pays for growth and who benefits from it.”
Sixth Ward City Council representative Barbara Hoppe said she thought the interest in the P&Z seats reflected a greater public interest brought on by public involvement in the city’s recent visioning efforts. She said more careful planning and updated zoning would be better for neighborhoods and for developers and said that neither of the new members had expressed any interest in curtailing development.
“We had some really good candidates; I was impressed with their wealth of experience,” Hoppe said. “I think they are people who are very intelligent, very detail-oriented, who understand the important role of planning and who are willing to devote a good bit of time to the process of helping to update the zoning ordinances, which are pretty out of date.”
The largest impact of the new political changes on the panel, however, may quicken the drive to revamp Columbia’s planning and zoning process. Depending on what happens at next month’s city council retreat, the city may consider retooling its zoning regulations.
Still on the table for the city council is a report produced by the Process and Procedures Stakeholders Work Group and submitted to the P&Z in June 2006 and to the city council in January 2007. The group’s stated goals were to increase public participation, improve the efficiency of the process and foster a less adversarial public policy climate, and its recommendations included creating a mediation process to resolve disputes, uncoupling land-use decisions from site-planning issues, giving more oversight authority for technical details of a plan to city staff and the P& Z commission, eliminating duplicate hearings, increasing communication with the public, and modernizing subdivision and zoning regulations.
“I think the time is coming for more modern zoning codes,” Hindman said. The current system is unfair to those who opt for planned zoning over open zoning, he said, and current rules do not allow for enough mixed development. “There are far more modern zoning codes than we have.”
Wade noted that the zoning regulations are 25 years old and said, “I suspect they’re antiquated and need to be modernized. When you have outdated rules and regulations, they don’t do the job for anyone.”
Wade used as an example the last council meeting, at which the members dealt with two public hearing items passed unanimously or with only one nay vote from P&Z and which had no opposition or public discussion. “It seems to me the council spends a lot of time micro-designing projects; that shouldn’t be our job,” Wade said. “I think we need to put policies into place that are fair, clear and address the kind of framework we want to guide our future.”
Duplication of meetings and hearings makes the process very difficult, and it’s not just a question of duplication between the P&Z and the city council, said Tim Teddy, city planning director. “For some projects we have many, many hearings for the same development,” Teddy said, pointing to the Broadway Bluffs development, among other examples. “Every time someone brings in a building plan in that development, they have to go through a set of two public hearings and three public meetings before they can move to construction documents. Had we approved that whole development in some form, it could have been one set of hearings.”
Barrow said he hoped for better procedures that would make the process smoother and would cut some unnecessary repetition. He said attorneys often use the P&Z hearing as a way to hone arguments for the bigger case they make later at the council meeting, and sometimes the projects change between the two hearings. “Fairly often, a developer will come in with plan A at planning and zoning, yet by the time it gets to the city council, it’s plan B,” Barrow said. “It’s frustrating from our perspective because sometimes you wonder if you’re getting a bait-and-switch.”
Barrow cited the example of the mixed-use development at Cherry Hill as something Columbia should encourage rather than discourage. “There were all these rules that make the cookie-cutter subdivision look, and [the developers] were trying to get around that and have a pedestrian-friendly type of neighborhood where people could interact as neighbors and walk to their local stores,” Barrow said. “It was exactly what the city had said that it wanted in the Metro 2020 guidelines. It was so extremely difficult for them to get through the process. It was kooky.”
“Having quality policy on development in the long run will help, not hurt, the development community,” Wade said. “But it’s hard to get that understanding across when you have a history of Lone Rangers who simply want to do what they want to do when they want to do it and don’t want anybody getting in their way,” he said. “At a community level, we can no longer afford to do it that way. We’re an urban area now. We’ve got to be a proactive partner in all of this.”