Monday, July 18, 2011

BIZARRE CONFRONTATION: Erupts between city planner, neighborhood association

Tensions overheat nearly an hour into contentious rezoning meet
COLUMBIA, 7/18/11  (Beat Byte) -- An unusually-long and heated confrontation between a senior Columbia city planner, a retired Columbia city employee, and neighborhood association members virtually shut down a late May public meeting about a plan to rezone the corner of West Blvd. and West Broadway that houses the Great Hangups frame shop. 
Columbia City Council members will take up the request for a second time in nine months Monday night.
"This is a public information meeting.  Our staff is not here to have you blast us for issues regarding elected officials," city planning development liaison Patrick Zenner told Janice "Cookie" Hagan, after Sunset Lane neighbors raised cries of "unfair, discriminatory, not right" regarding Columbia City Council moves that waived fees and other requirements for the rezoning applicants, while insisting that residents opposing the request follow the law to the letter.
President of the Historic Sunset Lane Neighborhood Association (HSLNA), Hagan retired in 2003 after 29 years with Columbia's Parks and Recreation Department, during which time she was lauded for her work with under-served and disadvantaged populations.  
The veteran city staffer had been questioning city planner Steve MacIntyre about a new wrinkle that caught neighbors by surprise:  dozens of petition signatures and letters opposing the project that took many months and many dollars to collect would be invalidated.  New petitions and opposition statements would have to be re-submitted for Council consideration at Monday night's July 18 vote to approve or deny the rezoning request, earlier denied last October. 
In a tone Zenner found offensive, Hagan asked whether Council members could "make us a new law," and "give us a little edge, too," given the waivers granted rezoning applicants Mark Nichols and Patra Mierzwa. 
"Ms. Hagan -- the sarcasm is not necessary please," Zenner replied, kicking off a confrontation that would go on for over three minutes (see related story below). 
"Sir -- I believe that you, sir, were very sarcastic to me in many ways at our last P&Z (Planning and Zoning Commission) meeting," Hagan retorted.  "You were very sarcastic to me." 
"If you'd like to quote me on that ma'am, go right ahead," Zenner fired back.  
"Yes sir, I will," Hagan replied. 
Temperature's rising
Nichols and Mierzwa have requested residential-to-commercial rezoning for five lots on the corner they own.  The plans also call for a right-hand turn lane that would almost certainly consume the Great Hangups building.  Questions about the turn lane and other issues heightened tensions between neighborhood residents and the two city staffers -- Zenner and MacIntyre -- who led the meeting. 

Neighbors repeatedly asked how the rezoning plan could have returned for a full City Council vote 5 months before a legally-mandated one year waiting period expired.  
Last October, Council members voted down the plan with a 5-vote "super majority," starting the one year time clock.  Then in January, 4th Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley, in whose Ward the property sits, asked to change his "no" vote under an obscure city ordinance that would have re-opened the rezoning application.  His move, however, came past a 90-day deadline, triggering yet another ordinance, this one allowing Council members to re-open the plan on a vote of their own.
But a May 2 move to do just that came to a sudden halt when Mayor Bob McDavid interrupted with a "point of order," questioning the necessity of a Council vote.  In a five-second ruling, city attorney Fred Boeckmann said he didn't think a vote was necessary because the rezoning application had changed substantially since October.   In an instant, the rezoning application was back on the table, along with application fee waivers 5th Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony suggested and Council members voted to approve. 

The intricate, vague nature of the waivers and the flow of public information from City Hall upset several meeting attendees, many of whom said they didn't receive a required notice of the meeting, only hearing about it after Hagan knocked at their doors.   Even MacIntyre, a model of low-voiced composure as neighborhood association members peppered him with questions, seemed unaware that Council members had skirted the one-year waiting period without a single member's vote.
Evolving turn lane
One long discussion involved the evolution of the turn lane.   Though a controversial easement to accommodate the lane that Nichols and Mierzwa earlier donated to the city no longer appears on the application, Hagan pressed MacIntyre about something she'd heard Mayor McDavid say, indicating the turn lane was still on the table. 
After some hedging, MacIntyre finally explained that the turn lane would indeed be included when the five lots were "replatted" for a new development.  
That, Hagan and fellow neighbors exclaimed, poses a major conflict of interest that could unduly sway City Hall toward approving the request.  But questions ground to a halt as the confrontation between Zenner and Hagan took off, about an hour into the proceedings (details below). 

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