WHILE COLUMBIA City Council should move deliberately in approving a zoning plan for the redevelopment of the 181-acre Bull Street neighborhood, it must take care to put proper checks in place to ensure the city has ample say in how the project is developed.
The council is expected to hold a public hearing on March 27 on developer Bob Hughes’ zoning request, which won unanimous approval from the city Planning Commission. But questions raised at the planning commission meeting must be settled before the council gives final approval. Chief among them is the role of a proposed review committee.
The proposed planned-unit development would allow Hughes Development Corp. to build residential and commercial projects close to each other using “form-base” or “smart” codes. A five-member consolidated review committee would decide which projects get built or rejected, where they are located and the enforcement of the smart-code standards. Mr. Hughes wants the panel to be composed of three Bull Street developers or their designees, the director of Historic Columbia Foundation and a city government representative.
When planning commission members raised questions about the authority of the review committee, Mr. Hughes described it as “a fancy homeowners association.” Big decisions such as approving a baseball stadium would be made by the council, he said.
If the panel truly operates like a homeowners association, then it would handle issues outside of the city’s purview and should be of little concern to Columbia officials. Typically, homeowners associations oversee deed restrictions, make sure members conform to standards, arrange security and street maintenance and such.
But some community representatives worry about the city relinquishing so much control over a development that is expected to transform the city, and impact neighbors and surrounding property. They want City Council to appoint the committee and for a majority of its members to be city representatives.
Before signing off, it is critical for the council to clarify what latitude this body will have. Can it relax codes used to guide development? Can it make changes in land use? To what extent can it operate beyond the sphere of homeowners associations? We’re not convinced that a panel with authority typically reserved to the city should be dominated by developers with a financial interest in the project.
The idea isn’t to slow or constrain development. It’s to ensure the city retains its lawful authority. Ultimately, it’s the city’s job to decide land use and protect the integrity of the surrounding community.
We appreciate Mr. Hughes’ vision and desire to do something transformational. He deserves some latitude to be creative — and to profit from his investment. City Council should assist him in his effort, but it must not cede its authority and responsibility to monitor this development.