Some Columbia residents hope to repeal a student housing development agreement between a student housing developer, The Opus Group, and the city.
Residents began a petition to have the agreement, in which Opus would fund city sewer and water main improvements, looked at again by City Council. The petition says residents did not have adequate say in the development agreement process.
“The city used an extraordinary and unusual process to expedite consideration and approval of these developments,” said Columbia resident and attorney Jeremy Root, who began the petition movement.
The council made the process behind approving developments quickly and not immediately available to the public, Root said.
“There’s not enough time to consider the projects and there have been repeated public declarations that we do not have adequate infrastructure to support these projects,” Root said.
Columbia’s ailing infrastructure does not currently support large-scale developments like Opus’s. City Council minutes from Feb. 17 indicate that there would be an overflow of sewage into the Hinkson Creek basin if there were one inch of rain with the infrastructure in place now.
“Three weeks later, they approved the development in one week’s time,” Root said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me; it doesn’t make sense to a very many people in our community.”
Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said the city discussed the development agreement bills under a normal time frame.
“The bill was introduced at a special meeting on March 12,” St. Romaine said. “That was a noon meeting. I think that’s what’s being asserted is (that the meeting was) done at noon, so there was no opportunity for comment.”
Those who worked different times in the day should have been able to come, St. Romaine said. The public could also comment during an evening City Council meeting.
“We had the opportunity for those who worked through the day shift to come and comment, and we had a meeting at noon for those who had a second shift,” St. Romaine said. “There was more opportunity for public comment than we normally would have.”
While a similar Collegiate Housing Partners development agreement is fine and has been planned for some time, Root said the Opus agreement is more problematic.
“The additional new development, the Opus project, from the public standpoint, came completely out of nowhere,” Root said. “It came on the heels of our city manager telling us on Feb. 17 we didn’t have the adequate infrastructure to support the development that we have today.”
Root said he does not believe the development agreement would solve the city’s infrastructure woes.
“The contributions that are being offered by the developer in no one’s mind, including the city staff, are adequate to enable our infrastructure to support them completely,” Root said.
St. Romaine said the project should be able to go forward without issue. The development’s site was already zoned. The development agreement solved city sewer issues.
“That site is already zoned,” St. Romaine said. “That, to me, says more than anything.”
Advocates for the petition have been working to gather signatures. The petition needs at least 3,209 notarized signatures to receive further consideration.
If it receives enough signatures, the petition will be submitted to the city clerk, who will verify the signatures. If the signatures hold, the agreement will move to City Council to be considered again. If council decides the ordinance should still not be repealed, voters will get to vote on the issue in the next election.
Repealing the development agreement could leave Columbia vulnerable to lawsuits, St. Romaine said.
“Development agreements are certainly not uncommon,” St. Romaine said. “The city agrees to do certain things. If this agreement will now be rescinded, I will believe we will be open for a lawsuit by Opus.”
St. Romaine urged residents to abandon the petition.
“I think that there’s a time and a place for initiative petitions, and this is not it,” St. Romaine said. “If every controversial issue were done this way, I don’t think we’d ever get anything done.”
Root said residents are disappointed in the city.
“As a citizen, I’m disappointed in this process,” Root said. “I want our government to respect the public’s right and desire to participate in public planning.”