City suggests changing comprehensive plan to fit in Heritage Baptist rezone
MONROE - Heritage Baptist Fellowship’s rezone request isn’t consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, so the city has recommended changing the language in the comprehensive plan so the rezone can be approved, catching the public and members of the planning commission off guard at last week’s public hearing on the rezone proposal.
The city’s surprise suggestions are much broader than the rezone request and haven’t been discussed as part of the rezone request process. They were quietly put online just days before last week’s public hearing on Monday, April 23.
The city suggested eliminating any language that describes the property as agricultural, that protects the property as a “scenic gateway” and that limits building to a few residential units and replacing it with language that emphasizes property rights, jobs and private business. The city also suggested establishing a “gateway” vision for the city’s three main entrances. The church’s property is located on the city’s eastern entrance.
“Due to inaccuracies in the current (comprehensive plan) text, significant changes in the economy since 2005 and a substantial change in the policy direction of the city to support economic development activities of private businesses and landowners, staff recommends the following corrections and changes to the text and polices of the comprehensive plan which would bring the East Monroe comprehensive plan amendment into consistency with the plan,” the staff report says.
Typically land, such as the church’s, located in a city’s urban growth area is intended to be developed some day, but in this case the city in 1998 changed the designation for the land to limited open space because of environmental and traffic issues.
The land is currently zoned limited open space and contains native growth protection areas, wetlands and steep, slide-prone slopes, according to a draft Phased Environmental Impact Statement released by the city in March.
The property also has no access to city water, sewer and storm water infrastructure, and traffic access off U.S. 2 is limited.
Heritage Baptist Fellowship has been trying for years to rezone the land, and its latest proposal has been submitted with adjacent landowners under the name East Monroe Economic Development Group. The church owns most of the land.
The planning commission was expecting to vote — on the application’s merits — whether or not to recommend to the City Council the property be changed from limited open space to general commercial. The church is asking the city to change about 50 acres to general commercial.
Instead, the city suggested changing the comprehensive plan to fit the goals of the church’s rezone request.
The suggested language changes the comprehensive plan from a policy document that emphasizes the natural environment and open space to one that emphasizes property rights, jobs and commerce.
Commissioners seemed confused not only about this out-of-the-blue request, but also the process chosen by staff to address such an issue. The city’s suggestions are much broader in scope than the rezone request.
Commissioner Dave Demarest confirmed with city economic development manager Jeff Sax that staff found the rezone request inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.
“Would it then stand to reason if it is inconsistent, it should not be approved?” Demarest asked, to which Sax replied that was Demarest’s conclusion, not his own.
“When I say the application is inconsistent, that can be overcome, the comprehensive plan is a living document,” Sax said.
Usually an applicant is asked to make changes to a proposal, not the city.
“I think we were sucker-punched in terms of knowing what’s going on,” rezone opponent Lowell Anderson said in a phone interview.
Some commissioners, though, rallied for protecting property rights. Commissioner Jeff Sherwood called it “un-American” to tell property owners what they can and can’t do with their land.
The city also is suggesting the new language emphasize this piece of property located on the eastern city limits off U.S. 2 as a commercial “gateway” into Monroe. The city says all of the city’s entrances need work.
“While impacted by environmental issues, the property has valuable commercial frontage potential on U.S. 2 and provides the city with an economic opportunity to provide a quality gateway presence at the eastern entry into the city,” the staff report says.
The problem with basing this particular land use decision on the “gateway vision” is that it’s just a discussion among staff members, some commissioners said.
No policy has been written identifying “gateways” as a city goal, Sax said.
“We’ve kicked it around internally with staff and there appears to be some support for the concept,” he said.
As some speakers said at last week’s public hearing, few people come from the east to visit Monroe.
“People coming from the east are returning home from skiing... they’re not concerned about a gateway,” resident Chad Stewart said.
The church’s rezone request has been rejected multiple times by the planning department (the city’s former planning director was fired after critical comments he made about the proposal appeared in this paper), planning commission and City Council for many reasons including flooding, significant environmental and traffic constraints and lack of water and sewer infrastructure.
The rezone request was given yet another chance shortly after Mayor Robert Zimmerman took office in 2010. Zimmerman is friends with former Councilman Chad Minnick whose father, Thomas Minnick, is the pastor at Heritage Baptist Fellowship. When Zimmerman and Minnick were on the City Council together they tried unsuccessfully to approve the church’s request.
Immediately after Zimmerman took office, church representatives lobbied the City Council to allow the planning commission to review its rezone request.
The planning commission last week did not have a majority vote to send a recommendation to the City Council.
Three voted for sending a recommendation of approval to the council.
The three were Bridgette Tuttle, Sherwood and Wayne Rodland. The three against were Demarest, Paul Loots and Bill Kristiansen.
The seventh position on the commission is vacant.
The City Council will discuss the rezone at this week’s council meeting, which was held after press time for this issue.
By STEPHANIE KOSONEN
Published May 2, 2012