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Planning and Zoning Overhaul Draws More than Five Hours of Public Comment

The Columbia City Council voted to keep taxi stands on local streets.
The Columbia City Council voted to keep taxi stands on local streets.

After 15 speakers and more than five hours of public comment, the future of Columbia’s new planning and zoning regulations is still uncertain.

The Columbia City Council held a special public hearing Saturday to hear public comments on the proposed changes to the code. Known as the Unified Development Code, the 400-page document details the most dramatic changes to Columbia’s planning and zoning code since 1964. Homeowners, property owners, real estate agents and members of the Columbia Improvement District all proposed sometimes contrasting revisions to the plan during the hearing Saturday.

The Neighborhood Protection Standards posed the biggest point of contention. Designed to protect older residential areas of Columbia, the standards pose new building restrictions on development in lots next to single-family homes and duplexes. Neither homeowners nor real estate agents and property owners seemed satisfied with the new provisions.

Andy Waters, owner of West End Columbia Properties, LLC, and president of The Columbia Daily Tribune, fears the new standards will discourage downtown density and spike rents for downtown businesses and residents. He said the height and spatial restrictions on commercial properties downtown next to properties zoned or used for single-family homes will discourage density that the city should encourage.

“Our community is growing and there’s increasing demand for services and housing across the city. If supply of downtown commercial space and housing can’t keep up, what do you think happens to rents?” he asked. “I don’t have anything against chain restaurants and rich college students, but I don’t think that’s all we want to see downtown.”

Waters was also concerned for his own commercial developments, saying he invested in property based on one assumption of what could be done with it and now the standards are changing.

Pat Fowler, who owns a home in Columbia’s North Central neighborhood, used a Lego, scale model to illustrate that the Neighborhood Protection Standards don’t go far enough to protect homeowners like her. Although the code stipulates height restrictions on lots neighboring single-family homes in her neighborhood, she said nothing prevents property owners from buying up several adjacent lots and constructing a large apartment complex or other building.

She said she prizes her neighborhood for its diversity, affordability and character and that the code doesn’t provide enough neighborhood protection.

“It would diminish an already diminishing supply of affordable houses,” Fowler said. “New construction tends to not be affordable, but we have an inventory of affordable homes, and they sit on my street and the street next to me and the street next to that.”

Patrick Zenner, the city’s development services manager, said the newly proposed Neighborhood Protection Standards may not be perfect, but they’re a step in the right direction. He cautioned against throwing them out altogether.

“If we decide that we want to eliminate these standards, we basically tell those people that have invested their life savings, possibly, into a lot that we really don’t care,” Zenner said. “If people want to come in and develop their properties, I have no problem with that and I don’t think anyone else does either. But it’s balance, and that’s the other word we have heard a lot today about.”

At least one concern, from CID Board Member Debbie Sheals, was an easy fix. She proposed adding grease traps to the definition of solid waste, so grease bins would no longer line downtown allies.

And at the end of the meeting, Mayor Brian Treece set forward seven proposed changes and points for review: the neighborhood protection standards; adjoining residential use; height, setbacks, width and side drives; a request from the CID for exemptions for small downtown businesses; a proposed parking exemption for small apartments; and adding grease bins to the definition of solid waste.

The city council has not yet decided whether it will pass the Neighborhood Protection Standards as is and amend them later or send them back to Planning and Zoning for further review.

Two more public comment sessions will be held on March 6 and March 20.