The disputed rezoning of the Bull Street property received a qualified first approval Tuesday night from Columbia City Council.
The 6-0 vote came after a two-hour public hearing in which council heard resident after resident express concern that the proposed rezoning plan cedes too much control of the property to Hughes Development Corp. of Greenville. Councilman Daniel Rickenmann did not attend because he is on vacation.
Despite developer Bob Hughes’ assurances that City Council, the Planning Commission or the city’s planning and development staff would retain control over the big construction decisions in the 181-acre neighborhood, council gave Hughes the first of two votes.
But some on council want Hughes to:
• Change the composition of the committee that oversees each project so that city representatives outnumber the developers on the panel.
• Be more specific about which buildings on the former Department of Mental Health grounds he would protect.
• Provide a more detailed plan for what the neighborhood would look like and link that “development plan” to approval of the zoning.
• Provide more detailed design guidelines in his plans for the project that many say will change the face of the capital city.
“I will vote for the first reading, but those questions are going to have to be worked on,” Councilwoman Belinda Gergel told Hughes.
Although the meeting was not hostile, there clearly are strong differences between some council members, the city’s planning and development staff and some residents on one hand, and Hughes.
“We do ask you to maintain your authority over this neighborhood,” Ellen Cooper, president of several neighborhood groups that surround the site said to city officials, reflecting a theme from others who spoke.
Gergel and Councilwoman Leona Plaugh asked the most pointed questions about Hughes’ plans, stressing that they do not want him to walk away from the property. They want greater assurances and more details.
In its vote, council agreed that Mayor Steve Benjamin and city manager Steve Gantt would serve as liaisons to meet with Hughes during the next two weeks to work out the differences.
“Are you open to more dialogue?” Gergel asked Hughes.
Hughes said he’s already held detailed meetings with city staff and other stakeholders and accommodated changes suggested by the city’s Planning and Development Department. Still, the staff recommended two pages of changes, including altering the makeup of the Consolidated Review Committee or taking away its powers over zoning.
“I’m open to continued specific dialogue,” Hughes told council. “But requests for just more are not productive,” he said without elaborating.
Hughes said there is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about of how the zoning designation would be applied on the property. He disputed that the committee would strip the city of its oversight authority.
Hughes contends he cannot lay out a detailed master plan until he knows what the zoning designation is and can begin marketing projects that meet that designation.
“We have promised you in words and diagrams nothing less than the Roberts Mills (historic) district and nothing more than the Vista – a little bit better,” Hughes said. “If we’re as successful as we want to be, it will be everybody’s neighborhood.”
He left council chambers directly after the 9 p.m. vote and did not talk to the media as he had done after the March 5 Planning Commission endorsement of his rezoning plan.
That zoning designation, a variation of a “planned urban development,” would introduce “smart codes” into the city’s zoning classifications for the first time. Council held a three-hour meeting last week with a consultant to better understand smart codes and how Hughes’ version of them compares with those in other cities.
Striking a note of encouragement as the meeting ended, Gergel told Hughes, “I know we can all come to agreement on this.”