Columbia’s new comprehensive plan completes second phase

BY Eric Holmberg

COLUMBIA — It’s almost time for residents to give their input on Columbia’s future.

The Comprehensive Plan Task Force finished the second of six phases in December after holding informational sessions for residents in each of the city’s six wards. The task force soon will begin Phase 3 in which residents will be able to voice their priorities for challenges the city must address, although it has yet to schedule specific times.

A comprehensive plan is intended to provide the Columbia City Council, city staff and developers with a clear vision of how the city should grow over the next 20 years.

Columbia Imagined will replace Metro 2020, a comprehensive plan that was approved in January 2001. Metro 2020, however, has been sparsely used by the planning staff, and the city has grown mostly unguided over the past 10 years.

City’s rapid expansion outpaced growth plan

Community Development Director Tim Teddy has a popular refrain when talking about planning documents: We don’t want a plan to just sit on a shelf. Not using a plan is akin to not having one.

Ideally, a comprehensive plan serves as a guide for planning staff to endorse or recommend against development proposals. The plan would be a reference and a rubric for all parties involved.

“I’m probably guilty of not pushing enough Metro 2020,” Teddy said. “It’s actually the planners that kind of came after me, (who started) referring to it more in our reports because that’s really what you need to do; you need to frame issues in terms of your plan.”

Pat Zenner, the city’s development services manager, said Metro 2020 defined, in detail, what each type of zoning could include. Its shortcoming, though, is that it didn’t look “holistically” at other factors that impact land-use decisions.

Columbia Imagined will include seven sections: sustainable, livable communities; mobility, connectivity and accessibility; intergovernmental cooperation; infrastructure; environmental management; economic development; and land use and growth management.

Rapid population growth, accompanied by rapidly expanding city boundaries, exposed some of the problems with Metro 2020. Columbia grew from a city of 84,000 people in 2000 to 108,000 in 2011.

That 28 percent population growth accompanied 46 percent growth in miles of city roads. In fiscal 2001, the city was maintaining 334 miles of roads, compared to 488 miles in fiscal 2011, according to the city budgets.

Much of that infrastructure growth came as a result of the city approving low-density residential neighborhoods that forced Columbia’s boundaries outward. But the city has been unable to keep up with repairs to streets and sidewalks.

The Public Works Department’s streets and sidewalks fund, which contains money for street maintenance, snow removal and sidewalk repairs, has been increasing but continues to fall short of residents’ expectations. In a June survey of residents, nearly 60 percent of the 800 respondents said they were dissatisfied with street maintenance, despite that the city has been spending proportionally more money on maintenance in the past 10 years.

In fiscal 2001, the city spent $40 per person from the streets and sidewalks fund. In 2012, the current fiscal year, that number is budgeted at $65 person. That represents a 62.5 percent increase in spending per capita. By comparison, the city’s general fund has grown 33 percent during that time.

Some changes already outlined

Although it’s too early to get a sense of all the changes Columbia Imagined might bring to long-term planning, it’s clear that a revision of the city’s zoning regulations will be part of the effort.

A possible result would be a transition to form-based zoning. Form-based zoning focuses on how buildings look on the outside, not on the types of uses allowed.

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe has been a long-time proponent of form-based zoning.

“I think it’s a necessity,” she said. “We can’t really grow in a viable way as a city without modernizing our zoning codes and also grow in a way that works well with neighborhoods.”

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony, who was a member of the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission from 2007 to 2011, said at a Dec. 7 meeting that the city’s zoning regulations are “antiquated for a city our size.” She later said in an interview that the city continues to “have very traditional zoning” that is “too involved in minutiae,” such as what businesses can use a particular zoning district.

“We need to think more creatively,” she said.

The task force has identified 10 problems with Columbia’s zoning rules.

“The outgrowth of the plan will be the revision of the subdivision and the zoning regulations,” Zenner said. “There’s no question about that.”

Another problem identified by the task force is that the city has only one zoning district for single-family houses. An additional zoning district allowing smaller lot sizes could reduce sprawl.

Planners say the city also needs a zoning district that could standardize mixed-use designs such as the Village of Cherry Hill, which has a mix of apartments, single-family homes and retail and office uses.

Columbia’s zoning code does allow for planned unit developments, which require developers to adhere to a pre-approved number of dwellings per acre. The task force, however, said in its preliminary report that these districts, which often are used for the most dense types of residential developments, are somewhat flawed because they don’t require the developer to explain intent and there are few criteria for evaluating the quality of the development.

There is also “no true agriculture district, too, that can preserve large farm tracts in city limits,” according to the task force report.

Intergovernmental cooperation

Another goal of the plan is to boost coordination between the various government entities in Columbia and Boone County.

Already, the city has agreements with the Boone County Fire Protection District and the Boone County Regional Sewer District. It routinely communicates with the Boone County Commission on subjects such as the water quality of Hinkson Creek. It also has worked with the county to create plans to guide growth in the area surrounding the new Battle High School and in the area immediately east of the city.

Still, intergovernmental cooperation doesn’t always happen the way it should. For example, when Columbia Public Schools was considering prospective sites for Battle High School in 2007, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department staff waited. It wanted to fulfill its goal of placing parks near schools, but it didn’t want to jump the gun.

“We obviously didn’t want to try and outguess them,” Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said.

When it updated its Neighborhood Parks Acquisition List in May 2008, the department added a park near the high school. There was a steep cost, however, for waiting.

The school district bought the 80-acre high school site from St. Charles Road Development for $900,000, or $11,250 per acre.

In December, the Parks Department bought 30.18 acres of park land — from the same development group — for $633,780, or $21,000 per acre. The city also will spend $47,500 to cover the cost of extending sewer service to the property.

Hood said that if his department had worked more closely with the school district, it could have looked for a tract of land together and then divided it.

“I think that would have been the ideal,” Hood said. “But with two public bodies subject to extensive public scrutiny, it gets very difficult to do that.”

Other issues to address

At the six community meetings held during the plan’s second phase, residents tended to focus on parts of the plan that will address infrastructure and economic development. The task force hopes Columbia Imagined will do a better job of accommodating the engines of growth and guiding the city on the most appropriate and desirable forms of economic development.

“Several strategies can be employed to ensure positive economic development is promoted within a community, such as developing programs supportive of entrepreneurship and business start-ups, developing collaborative partnerships, growing and retaining local businesses and investing in sustainable development practices,” its report reads. “By focusing on these and other strategies, a community’s economic development health and potential is sustained and enhanced. Without such a focus the economic destiny of a community is likely to be less than desired.”

The city has three shovel-ready sites certified by the Missouri Department of Economic Development. No other city in the state has more than one.

Shovel-ready sites are those that have adequate infrastructure, utilities such as water, sewer and electric in place and have already had preliminary environmental studies completed. Regional Economic Development Inc. President Mike Brooks said having that certification can cut six to nine months off the development process.

Shovel-ready sites in Columbia include Ewing Industrial Park and the Sutter Tract, which are industrial sites in the Route B corridor in the northeast part of town, and Discovery Ridge, a research site to the southeast that has ready access to U.S. 63.

Including a section on economic development in the Columbia Imagined plan will allow the task force to match the areas where companies are likely to build with other sections such as infrastructure. That, in turn, could influence the city’s capital improvements program, which identifies priorities for streets and other major infrastructure projects over the next one to two years, three to five years and six to 10 years. Input from residents might prompt planners to add projects to the program or to put existing projects on a faster or slower track.

Similarly, the planned section on mobility, connectivity and accessibility would include sidewalk improvements. Because the 2007 Sidewalk Master Plan is supposed to be updated this year, it, too, could be affected by the comprehensive plan.

Under the environmental management section, the task force says that in 2009 and 2010, Columbia lost 53 historic structures. Preserving more of the city’s historic buildings, especially downtown, could be another outcome of the plan should residents make it a priority.

What happens next?

In the third phase of the planning process, residents will tell the task force what priorities they would like to see addressed in the new plan. Just as in the second phase, the task force will hold meetings in each of the city’s six wards beginning this month and continuing through March.

The task force hopes to write a first draft of the plan during the summer and have a final draft ready for council approval by the end of 2012.

Leave a Reply