By STEPHANIE KOSONEN
Published May 9, 2012
Heritage Baptist rezone clears first reading at City Council
MONROE - The city’s last-minute strategy to change the comprehensive plan in order to approve Heritage Baptist Fellowship’s controversial rezone request passed a first reading last week by the City Council, which has final say on comprehensive plan amendments.
The vote was 5 to 1 with Councilwoman Patsy Cudaback voting no. Throughout the discussion, Cudaback brought up numerous times that the city wasn’t following the correct public process.
The city in its findings and conclusions on the rezone request found the proposal by Heritage Baptist Fellowship “inconsistent” with the goals and intent of the comprehensive plan. The church is seeking a comprehensive plan amendment to change the land-use on its property from limited open space to general commercial.
In response, city staff uploaded a re-write of the rezone proposal to the city’s website April 27 suggesting changing the comprehensive plan, which in turn would bring the proposal in line with the plan.
The city staff re-write is unusual. Typically the city reviews a rezone request on its merit to see if it fits with the goals of the comprehensive plan.
The re-write was released by the city on the Friday before the Monday planning commission public hearing on the merits of the rezone request.
“In my mind what we’re doing is we’re changing the comprehensive plan to fit the project, and that should not be the process,” Cudaback said.
The planning commission saw the changes at the public hearing, which caught members of the commission and the public off guard. The proposal now calls for changing about 50 acres to general commercial and calls for broader land-use actions beyond just the church’s property. The city staff re-write called for adding a “gateway” land-use concept and emphasized the importance of economic development over environmental protection.
The gateway concept hasn’t been discussed in public at all.
The gateway idea targets the city’s main highway entrances to town for high quality development to encourage people to get out of their cars and shop, economic development manager Jeff Sax said.
Staff members have favorably tossed the idea around, he told the planning commission two weeks ago.
“Some internal staff discussion and then to put it in the comprehensive plan is not enough process,” Cudaback said.
The church’s land sits on the eastern edge of the city just off U.S. 2. The staff re-write identifies the church’s land as the eastern gateway.
“Although I like the concept, I can’t use it as something that helps me approve this amendment,” Cudaback said.
A 60-day review period is required by state law before the City Council can adopt a comprehensive plan amendment.
For years, the church, now operating under the name East Monroe Economic Development Group, has wanted to rezone the land. Other property owners have joined the church in this latest request, but the church is the primary landowner. The land sits in Native Growth Protection Areas, has wetlands and shoreline buffers, as well as flood-prone areas and steep slopes. There are many environmental and traffic constraints and no access to city water, sewer and storm water infrastructure.
The rezone requests have been denied, mainly because of environmental and traffic concerns, each time until this year, when the City Council did an about-face and decided to put the project on the planning commission’s docket.
The very night new Mayor Robert Zimmerman was sworn in, church representatives revived their bid for the rezone.
Zimmerman and political ally, Chad Minnick, tried to get the rezone approved when the two were on council together. Minnick’s father is the church’s pastor.
The last city employee to question the rezone, former planning director Hiller West, was fired by Zimmerman after his comments appeared in the Tribune.
Sax said the council could hold a second public hearing at the ordinance’s second reading if the council desires. Any substantial changes to the proposal would mean a delay, he said.
The staff re-write did not look “overly dramatic” to him, Sax said.
The re-write changes the land-use for the church’s property.
The re-write suggested eliminating any language that describes the property as agricultural, protects the property as a “scenic gateway” and limits building to a few residential units and replacing it with language that emphasizes property rights, jobs and private business.
The latest justification rezone proponents are using is property rights.
It is government’s job to dictate when these become actual rights, however, through land-use decisions, Cudaback said.
“Having property doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want with that property. I don’t think the property rights discussion is a good argument to make this change,” she said.
Cudaback also brought up the fact that the state Department of Ecology has several concerns about the adequacy of the city’s Draft Phased Environmental Impact Statement.
A few members of the public spoke during the meeting’s open comment period about the proposal, most of them opponents.
Monroe resident Chad McCannon said he felt the changes to the comprehensive plan were brought on “very hastily without a lot of chance for public review.”
The property would put a commercial development right up against his residential property, he added.
The comprehensive plan forbids this, he said, and says that residential areas should be kept as peaceful and quiet as possible, something that won’t be possible with a commercial development.
“Right now all I hear is frogs at night. I hear a car occasionally and I hear frogs,” he said, adding that he’d like to keep it that way.
Resident Doug Hamar said that with the city’s goal of revitalizing its downtown core, he was “mystified why a new commercial zone has any legs at all,” as it would only succeed in “pulling customers and services, especially the already stretched Monroe police force, away from the downtown core” — the very definition of urban sprawl, Hamar said.
“I’d really like to hear somebody approach the owners and occupants of the existing stores in Monroe and explain how a new place a mile down the road will benefit them,” he said.
The zoning of this land doesn’t have to be a political decision, Hamar said, calling the rezone “neither needed nor justified.”
Speaker Brett Olsen read from a letter sent by the applicant’s representative, Joshua Freed.
All of the potential impacts to the site will have to be mitigated, Freed wrote, and it’s normal to occasionally “tweak” the comprehensive plan.