Friday, July 8, 2011

CONFLICTING INTERESTS: Great Hang Ups land-for-rezoning deal upsets neighbors

Quiet land giveaway tied to rezoning request unnerves Sunset Lane residents
COLUMBIA, 7/8/11  (Beat Byte) -- 38-year Sunset Lane resident Alan Havig is so concerned about a land giveaway many area residents say is a behind-the-scenes force driving a nearby commercial rezoning request that he put it at the top of his list of "important unknowns" in a June 20 letter to the Columbia City Council, which introduced the rezoning legislation at Tuesday night's meeting for the second time in 9 months.
Havig's letter accompanies some 70 petition signatures and numerous other protest letters City Hall received last month, many of which criticize the nature and scope of the land giveaway.
Great Hang Ups owners Mark Nichols and Patra Mierzwa "propose the donation of an easement to the city for the construction of a right turn lane which would carry traffic from the east bound lane of Broadway onto West Blvd.," Havig wrote.  "No one should be impressed with the land donation offer when that 'gift' may be completely irrelevant to the plan eventually adopted for West Broadway."   
Unreported twist
If approved by the Columbia City Council this month, the Great Hang Ups request would rezone three houses, a parking lot, and the Great Hang Ups building on the corner of W. Broadway and West Blvd. into a single commercial lot, but with a twist previously unreported until this publication broke the story last weekFree land for City Hall -- essentially the entire Great Hang Ups building and the lot it sits on at no charge
Nichols and Mierzwa want to donate -- rather than sell -- a permanent easement so large it would take out most of the existing Great Hang Ups building, the Historic Sunset Lane Neighborhood Association noted in another June 20 letter, to the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z). 
The easement would otherwise cost tens of thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of dollars, depending on broadly-variable valuation parameters, including the corner's prime location, ultimate zoning status, development plans, and the property owners' motivations.   
But city government only gets the free land if the City Council approves the rezoning request.
Dozens of area residents formally protested the land-for-zoning deal in letters to P&Z.  "The City should purchase the land it requires for the easement if necessary, and not tie the acquisition of the right turn easement to rezoning the corner," residents complained.   
Easy easement

Their valuation the subject of texts and articles, permanent easements that carry heavy effects on property without directly benefitting it are usually sold, often for big bucks.    
Easement acquisition costs can make or break public and private projects, and many times the subject has come up in Columbia City Council meetings and planning discussions over the years.  Some easements are indeed donated, but tend to directly benefit the property owner (e.g. new sewer lines or stormwater systems) and are often temporary and returned to the owner at a certain future date. 
The Great Hang Ups easement donation strikes Havig as premature, given that no plans exist for the other three corners or West Broadway itself.  "It is my understanding that the city has not yet adopted a plan for altering traffic flows on Broadway west of Aldeah," Havig wrote.  "That plan may call for right turn lanes on all four corners of the intersection with West Boulevard, or none of them." 
Back room deals?
Historic Sunset Lane Neighborhood Association leader Janice "Cookie" Hagan largely blames the land-for-rezoning deal for what she terms the "back room, under the table" manner the Great Hang Ups rezoning request has moved through City Hall.  She brought up the issue at a public meeting last month, and on Friday, reiterated her association's position. 

"The easement has now made its way into the replatting of the lot," Hagan told the Columbia Heart Beat.  "It used to be part of the rezoning application's 'statement of intent,'" the applicant's explanation of their plans.  But then it vanished from the statement of intent, only to reappear in a replatting plan. 
Now, once the area is replatted from 5 lots to one big lot -- regardless what the statement of intent says or who owns the property -- the city will have the free land.  "We found that out when neighbors asked what would happen if we bought the property," Hagan said.    
Replatted or rezoned, the easement, new turn lane, and rezoning request itself is premature by many years, and "should only be considered within the context of a larger West Broadway plan," Alan Havig told the City Council.  "I know of no such plan."   
(Havig letter page 44; Association protest letters start on page 53)

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