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North Village demolition reveals murky zoning authority in Columbia

Explanatory article on brewing controversy between a county social service agency and some residents in the neighborhood of its headquarters / 1021 words / The Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA, MO. — When Boone County Family Resources demolished the house at 400 St. Joseph St. in August, a cloud of confusion over permitting remained even after the debris was cleared.

Two months later, uncertainty persists not only about the demolition permit but also about whether the city has any standing to determine how the agency uses the land.

Boone County Family Resources bought 400 St. Joseph St. in May and tore down a house on the property in August. It also announced this summer that it needed room to grow when it submitted a proposal for leased parking and office space at the new Short Street garage.

Residents in the agency’s North Village neighborhood, aware of inevitable development pressure as downtown Columbia grows, approached the city with concerns that Boone County Family Resources might be violating city codes and making moves that could compromise the historic character of their area.

The demolition also triggered a debate about whether Boone County Family Resources is subject to city zoning ordinances. This surprised city staff, which has since learned of a complicated case history informing the social service agency’s sense of zoning autonomy.

Zoning authority

The dispute arose over a garage that was left standing at 400 St. Joseph St. after the house was demolished. It revealed that the county’s process for issuing permits to Boone County Family Resources has been more of a pattern than an explicit protocol over the decades.

Columbia Community Development Director Tim Teddy said he thinks city and county staff now should formalize those permit arrangements.

Boone County Counselor C.J. Dykhouse said that because of the state legislation under which Boone County Family Resources was created, it is on par with a fire district or school board when it comes to land use: It can build whatever it wants wherever it sees fit in order to meet its statutory mission.

“(T)he sole administrative control of the agency’s facilities will rest with the agency’s board of directors,” Dykhouse said. He also serves as legal counsel for Boone County Family Resources, pursuant to an agreement between the agency and the Boone County Commission.

Dykhouse pointed out the difference between land use zoning and building codes. Any building must be up to code to ensure the health and safety of the people who will live or work in it. That includes fire stations, school buildings and anything owned by Boone County Family Resources.

Demolitions also fall under these health and safety regulations.

But the city’s and county’s authority falls away for entities such as Boone County Family Resources when it comes to land use. They don’t have to follow the same guidelines within zoning districts that homeowners or private businesses must, Dykhouse said.

A murkier picture emerged Wednesday evening when the North Village Neighbors, a group of residents from Hubbell Drive and St. Joseph Street, met with the city’s Planning and Legal departments. City Counselor Fred Boeckmann described a history of Missouri case law that considers a “balance of interests” when granting ultimate zoning authority.

North Village resident Mara Aruguete summed it up after the meeting by saying that just because the law is murky, that doesn’t mean local negotiations can’t be clear.

“We’d like to work it out through cooperative agreement at the ground level with Boone County Family Resources, which is what the city suggested we do,” she said.

400 St. Joseph St. and beyond

Boone County Family Resources maintains it has no intention to develop any of its North Village properties into parking lots or office buildings.

“That’s not at all in the plans,” said Robyn Kaufman, the agency’s associate director. She said that will remain true even if the agency’s proposal to lease parking and office space at the new Short Street garage development falls through.

“We feel like the most valuable use continues to be residential,” Kaufman said.

She said that in the future, it’s possible the agency will customize some of its rental properties for people with developmental needs.

Boone County Family Resources was founded in 1976 to serve people of all ages who have developmental disabilities. It is supported by a property tax paid by Boone County residents.

The house at 400 St. Joseph St. was torn down because it was dilapidated, Teddy said. He added that even though the garage is sound, the permit required that all accessory structures also be demolished.

“So they’re not compliant” with the demolition permit that was issued by the city, Teddy said. “But we haven’t held them in violation because they’ve asked for more time.”

Teddy said Friday that his office has received a letter from Boone County Family Resources asking that the garage be considered part of an adjacent residential property it owns so that the city can close the book on the matter.

North Village resident Adam Saunders said he is optimistic that Boone County Family Resources will “respect the character of the neighborhood in their future development.”

But in his view, the entire conversation is about more than Boone County Family Resources.

“It’s a part of the larger change that’s occurring throughout the neighborhood,” he said. “I think the best way to approach it is getting all the stakeholders involved (to) talk about the future of the neighborhood.”

First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt said Wednesday night that there is strong political support for form-based zoning in the city. He encouraged the North Village Neighbors to propose a form-based zoning pilot program or an urban conservation overlay for their neighborhood.

Form-based zoning focuses on the form of buildings and urban spaces instead of land use or management, according to a previous Missourian article.

Although either strategy would still be nonbinding for Boone County Family Resources, Schmidt indicated it might give the city, residents and the agency a helpful framework if a disagreement over development arises in the future.

Saunders acknowledged that the dynamics of neighborhood visioning change when one party is not legally bound to the same rules.

“It makes it a little more interesting,” he said.

For now, all parties are looking to the Short Street garage development to satisfy Boone County Family Resources’ immediate growth needs.

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