By MADELYN FAIRBANKS
Published June 20, 2012
Another no decision on East Monroe
Rezone now in hands of City Council
MONROE - The only thing that was made clear last week at the city’s planning commission public hearing on a proposed rezone was that the commission members are having difficulty making decisions together.
The commission, which is an advisory body to the City Council and appointed by the mayor, has now given its second official “no recommendation” to the council on whether or not the council should push through a requested land-use comprehensive plan amendment and commercial rezone of 50 acres in east Monroe.
Because of disagreements among city staff and for lack of putting forth motions, the commission can now boast a 0 for 2 record in its ability to work together on this issue.
The plot of farmland in question, which sits in a flood plain and is a natural growth protection area according to the city’s comprehensive plan, is primarily owned by Heritage Baptist Fellowship, which has filed its latest rezone request under the moniker East Monroe Economic Development Group LLC.
For years the church has been trying to get a land-use change designation and rezone approved on the land it bought years ago that it wants to sell to a developer. The land is more valuable zoned commercial than limited open space.
The church’s past attempts have been rejected multiple times by the city for a multitude of reasons including the environmental and traffic constraints.
This time the church’s political allies are in charge of the city and their desired outcome may be just days away.
Mayor Robert Zimmerman is friends with Chad Minnick whose father Thomas Minnick is the pastor at Heritage. Zimmerman and Minnick used to serve on the City Council together and both went to exhaustive lengths to push the church’s request through, including a lengthy battle to change the city’s ethics code so Zimmerman and Minnick could vote on the church’s request.
Their attempts failed.
Now Zimmerman is mayor and before his seat at the City Council dais could even get warm, church representatives in 2010 revived their bid for the rezone by directly lobbying the council. (Minnick is no longer on the council.)
The city now is even willing to rewrite the comprehensive plan for this property so the plan meets the goals of the church. According to the comprehensive plan, general commercial on this property is an inconsistent land-use.
“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.
This last-minute rewrite was brought before the planning commission days before its scheduled vote on a recommendation on the church’s land-use change designation.
Commissioners at the time seemed confused not only as to this out-of-the-blue request, but also the process chosen by staff to address such an issue. The city’s rewrite of the comprehensive plan is 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.
While the city is going to bat for the church’s property rights, residents who have made their homes on the bluff overlooking the church’s property feel differently, saying that as property owners, they too, have rights.
Chad McCammon, a bluff resident, appeared flabbergasted at last week’s public hearing.
“It’s in a flood plain,” he said, and pointed out that flood clean-up to any commercial development on the land would not only be expensive and time-consuming, but virtually unavoidable.
“My property value is the view,” Monroe resident Doug Hamar added.
Among the bluff-dwellers, Hamar estimated, lies $4 million in property value because of their view of the land below. Hamar lamented this bucolic value being taken from residents and given to the church in the form of a large profit by making this rezone happen.
Among other involved planning commissioners, commissioner Bill Kristiansen has stated in the past that the issue of whether or not someone can request a rezone is a property rights issue and should be protected as such — the latest city talking point some commissioners have latched onto.
After public testimony ended, the commission was obligated to make some sort of recommendation to give to the City Council, which will make the final decision to approve or deny this rezone and comprehensive plan amendment request.
A handful of motions were made by less than half of the commission, none of which lived through the process to be passed along to the council in the form of a recommendation.
Previously vocal in the meeting about his disapproval of the project, Demarest made a motion to deny the rezone request. But he couldn’t get enough votes and the motion died promptly.
The rezone request now goes to the City Council, and many opponents fear the rezone will be quickly pushed through there.
The City Council’s public hearing on all comprehensive plan amendments, including the church’s, was held Tuesday, June 19 after press time.