By JEFF DURBIN, Missourian staff writer
April 30, 1999

Sinkholes and underground caverns riddle the landscape south of Columbia, where water from upper Bonne Femme Creek drops underground through a swallow hole and passes through the Devil's Icebox.

That geology makes for a vulnerable and unstable landscape.

It's also an unprotected landscape - and so far, a proposed city plan to rein in urban sprawl does not attempt to change that.

State Parks Assistant Director Jim Crabtree worries about possible development in the fragile watershed of Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, home to the federally endangered pink planarian and gray bats.

"Some caves are so sensitive that oil residues washing from roads can affect them," Crabtree said. "If you have a change in chemicals, you can see a living cave go to a dead cave."

The how's and where's of future development in the area will soon fall under Metro 2020, Columbia's draft land-use plan. Metro 2020 goes well beyond the current city limits, encompassing a wide swath reaching nearly from Finger Lakes in the north to beyond Rock Bridge in the south.

The plan incorporates several strategies to combat urban sprawl, encouraging higher-density, "neo-traditional" development and allowing neighborhood commercial centers to locate near residential areas.

From commissioners to local residents, nearly everyone says the plan is a step in the right direction. But opinion diverges after about Chapter Two of the 63-page draft, and one glaring omission draws a chorus of criticism from all sides: Once again, the city and the county are not working together.

"It's the city's turn to reach out to the county and encourage them," said Jeff Barrow, a city planning and zoning commissioner. "The boundaries are arbitrary. There needs to be dialogue, because those two bodies have the final say."

Without county-city collaboration, it will be difficult to achieve what has emerged as a repeated refrain in public discussions: more open space.

Under Metro 2020's transportation plan, narrow, tree-lined Gans Road near Rock Bridge will become an arterial street, and Bonne Femme Church Road and Gans Creek Road will be collector streets, drawing development to the fragile karst area.

"It completely changes the hydrology," said MU geologist Joe Engeln. "They should look at the natural landscape, which says it's not appropriate for development. We do not know where all the caverns are. It becomes an engineering nightmare. Septic tanks or sewers might fail because they're not supported from below."

City planning director John Hancock said that while the area is not set aside under Metro 2020, it receives protection from current zoning regulations.

"When development is proposed, the geology will be taken into account," Hancock said.

Setting aside large parks for an expanded urban area and preserving farmland are also difficult goals because Columbia doesn't have planning authority over county land.

"The plan can't build our park system," planning and zoning commission chairman Jerry Wade said. "We need to see a green space coalition do the same thing in the county as there is in the city. It sure would be nice if the county could do it, and we could integrate it into our map."

Columbia's Greenbelt Coalition would like to designate all metro area creeks as greenbelts, and include common parks in all development, said member Jane Addison.

"Common space which is green adds to the feeling of community," Addison said. "Often the greenbelts are a way of linking parks."

Planning and zoning commissioners hope to hold their final public hearing on the plan May 20.

So far, the county hasn't become involved in the Metro 2020 process; two scheduled presentations of the plan to the County Commission have been postponed. More than a month later, the commission still hasn't been briefed on the plan.

Metro 2020 includes a tool that could get county and city planners to work together: "sketch planning," an informal meeting to sketch out plans for pending annexation land.

"It begins to lay out a sketch for how development will look before you start," said Wade. "It doesn't lock anything into position; it helps to get people at the table to create a common framework. Developments in isolation result in urban sprawl."