THE HOME STRETCH: NEW HOUSING DEVELOPMENTS RAISE QUESTIONS OF UNCHECKED GROWTH
By JEFF DURBIN, Missourian staff writer
April 25, 1999
Scott Boulevard takes you from the city over rolling hills into the countryside, past fields and homes tucked in the woods -- and back to Columbia. It's not just a trick of the map. Thanks to annexation last year, the city is coming to the country.
A freshly covered trench runs along Scott for a pipeline carrying natural gas to the new Thornbrook subdivision, 274 lots on 260 acres, developed by Elvin Sapp. The first homes are now being shingled.
In public hearings last year, the Boone County Commission heralded Thornbrook as a step in the direction of sustainability. But most neighbors protested it would become overcrowded.
"It doesn't seem to be the place for a big development like that," said Jim Givens, who lives across Route KK from Thornbrook. "There's a lot of property closer to town to develop on."
Critics like Givens say Thornbrook doesn't belong nearly three miles into the country. They call it "leapfrog" development that stretches city services and eats into the rural landscape.
These days, "smart growth" planners from California to Connecticut are promoting denser neighborhoods mixed with businesses to make cities more efficient -- in a word, sustainable. As some say, who wants to burn a quart of gas just to buy a quart of milk?
The bottom-line goal of smart growth is to reduce the problems of urban sprawl, such as traffic, the high cost of providing utilities and services, and impact on the environment.
But local decision makers are running into a standard axiom of community psychology: Nice idea, but not in my backyard. Especially when the backyard takes in a view of the countryside.
Thornbrook is not the only example of this clash of values.
NewTown, a future subdivision off Route K halfway to McBaine, was also criticized by nearby residents for being too dense to fit with the area's rural character.
Copper Creek development, on St. Charles Road east of town, passed muster with neighbors only when they realized lots would be about two acres in size, rather than half an acre.Anything less dense than four units per acre -- the average density of most Columbia neighborhoods -- is considered by smart growth proponents to be sprawl.
"For me, it's all just subdivisions," said Rick Goodman, a south Boone County farmer. "Some of it ought to be left rural. Not low density or high density, but just farm country."
Ken Midkiff, director of the Sierra Club's statewide Ozark chapter, considers a development like Thornbrook, away from the central city, jobs and public transportation, to be poorly planned sprawl.
"The sustainability idea was meant to apply to existing neighborhoods, not ones that don't exist," he said. "Nobody was talking about creating whole communities out where nothing is now except grassland and woods."
The county commission tries to guide high density into places that can support it, said Commissioner Karen Miller, and Scott Boulevard is one of those places. While residents look around and see open space, the commission is looking ahead - and sees the a rea as developed.
Miller said Thornbrook is not as far from Columbia as it appears, considering that there are 36 acres of new commercial zoning at the Vawter School Road-Scott Boulevard intersection and about 140 acres slated for subdivisions nearby.
As Keith Kirkpatrick, chairman of the county's planning and zoning commission, put it during the debate over Thornbrook: "Sustainability, until something is put down on paper, is subjective."
Rural subdivisions and the questions they raise are a can of worms.
* Do dense subdivisions belong a mile or more outside Columbia, under the assumption they will soon be part of the city? Is that good planning or expensive sprawl?
* What if rural neighbors protest? Are their objections outweighed by what is perceived to be the greater good of the community?
* How can Boone County protect its open space and agricultural resources, particularly without the legal authority to offer the economic incentives used in other places?
* Should county and city officials be empowered to charge developers for the often-hidden costs of services?
When it comes to density, the middle ground is not the place to be, sprawl opponents say.
"One- to five- acre lots is right in the dead heart of the sprawl zone," said Larry Bohlen, co-chairman of the Sierra Club's national sprawl campaign. "A compromise on density ends up planning for sprawl, when people wanted to avoid it in the first place. "
Many towns, like Columbia, have encouraged this middle-ground size, leading to a cookie-cutter pattern that chews up open country quickly. Ten to 20-acre lots actually preserve some rural character, Bohlen says, as does dense clustered development with adjoining green space.
Part of the problem, many observers say, is that Boone County has accepted the inevitability of growth -- and in fact promotes it by providing roads and sewers in rural areas for subdivisions to hook up to.
Boone County's Master Plan calls for building within, or close to, already developed areas. Midkiff, who served on the committee that wrote the plan, called it a "failed document."
"You can draw up all the master plans in the world, and put out this nice proposal for residential here and industrial there and commercial here," Midkiff said. "The whole thing gets thrown out the window because if somebody wants to convert a cornfield into a housing development, and they jump through all the proper hoops, there's really not much the county commission can do. Local communities don't have the legal tools to deal with sprawl."
Those legal tools include the authority to charge impact fees to developers to share the cost of new schools, fire and police protection, and street upgrades.
Joe Engeln, an MU geologist involved in local planning issues, said taxpayers would benefit from development impact fees.
"We are hog-tied in Boone County," he said. "We can't do these things because there's no state legislation."
There's the problem. Impact fees, development rights or easements to set aside agricultural land or green space are strategies worth pursuing, Miller said; but they also require enabling state legislation.
"As a growing county, you need more authority," Miller said.
The commission has gone to the Missouri Legislature to seek that authority, but was turned down. Miller said the county may try again next year.
Sustainability, at least in the blueprints, seems to be NewTown's strongpoint. What critics ask is whether it belongs out in the country.
Columbia architect Nick Peckham designed NewTown to recapture traditional neighborhood charm, with front porches, streetlights and alleys. With 15 acres containing 62 homes, five acres of businesses and a park, sustainability plays a part because building local shops translates into fewer drives into Columbia for bread or shampoo.
Peckham said NewTown is infill development, since he predicts it will soon be surrounded by a thousand homes.
"If you're in an apartment downtown and go out Route K it looks like countryside," Peckham said. "If you fly over in a plane, you think, 'If this is farm country, there sure are a lot of buildings there.'"
But the sewers and roads required by those numbers, the most costly parts of infrastructure, are precisely what Route K now lacks. Peckham said Route K's narrowness and lack of shoulders are dangerous, and the road needs to be upgraded.
But not everyone is buying Peckham's idea of sustainability.
"He counted this subdivision as a sustainable development because it has a grocery store and bar or something," Midkiff said. "There's nothing there now. He's proposing a sprawling development away from the central city."
"Each one built breeds another one," Goodman said of Route K's growth. "They all lead to more traffic, trash, more requirements for service."
Thornbrook neighbors also question the county's arguments.
"It's putting it out here where there's not really the infrastructure," Givens said. "That takes tax money. Citizens have to pay for roads, and there'll probably be a school and fire station."
It may be small comfort to area residents, but a senior researcher at the American Planning Association, Stuart Meck, said the county's situation is not special.
"These same types of debates occur across the United States," Meck said. "Controlling sprawl requires that you keep your eye on the objective. And government has to act consistently over time."