Planning commission denies request to rezone Oakville senior facility
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The St. Louis County Planning Commission declined to change the zoning designation for an Oakville-based low-income senior living facility.
It’s a temporary setback for opponents of the structure, which is currently under construction on Telegraph Road in the unincorporated south St. Louis County community.
The commission voted 6-1 to deny a rezoning request for the facility, which is owned by Columbus, Ohio-based National Church Residences. The St. Louis County Council took the unprecedented step earlier this summer to ask the commission to reexamine the zoning designation of the $5.2 million facility, which is receiving funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Proponents of the 44-unit structure say it will provide housing for low-income seniors. But opponents contend that Oakville residents didn’t have adequate notice when the structure was under review. They add that the 41,778 square foot structure is a poor fit for the piece of land – especially since the facility is next to a day-care facility and a convent.
Oakville residents, who packed the commission’s July 15 public hearing, mostly voiced their view that the structure be scuttled. Among those speaking was a spokeswoman for the Monastery of St. Clare, who read from a letter expressing concerns about “our privacy, lights, noises, a fence, trash, foot traffic and possible accidents.”
But a report from the county’s planning department handed out before the meeting recommended that the commission deny the rezoning request, contending that the facility “will provide needed, affordable housing for senior citizens in this area of St. Louis County.”
“The department believes this development complies with the purpose of the zoning ordinance that it promotes the health safety, morals, comfort and general welfare of the St. Louis County citizens – and provides an economic and coordinated land use,” the report states.
The report went onto say that “good planning practice dictates the current zoning is reasonable and appropriate” at the current location.
“The department is of the opinion that the facility is compatible with the abutting child-care center; will not compromise the privacy of the adjoining monastery; is functionally less intense than the uses that abut it to the north and south; will not create a public safety issue; and is consistent with the Oakville Community Area Study,” the report stated.
Before the commission made its decision, commission member Bill Sneed said “lack of due process” was troubling. It was one of the reasons he cast the lone vote to rezone the propety.
“Had we heard from the residents at the April 2012 meeting, I am confident that this commission would not have approved this position or at least made significant changes to address the residents’ concerns,” Sneed said.
The planning commission is an advisory body, meaning that the St. Louis County would have to take action regardless of what the commission did on Monday. Still, Oakville attorney Michael Haefner said he was “extremely disappointed” by the decision.
“It’s not representative of the people,” said Haefner, the son of state Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-Oakville. “It’s not representative of anybody’s that’s come to speak out against this project. It’s a sad day in St. Louis County politics. This was definitely a political decision – it was not the voice of the people.”
Glenn Powers, St. Louis County’s planning director, said the council could still overturn the facility’s zoning designation. The consequence of Monday’s decision, he said, was that it would take five council members to make that happen.
“Zoning is a legislative act, and it requires action by legislators – who are the county council in this case,” Powers said. “So really, all we voted on tonight is to make a recommendation. Ultimately, it is the county council that decides.”
The soonest the council could act is mid-August, although Powers added that the council may not resolve the conflict for some time.
Five votes are needed to overturn the zoning designation – especially since St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley could use his veto. Dooley contended that any action stopping construction would send a bad message to developers – and leave the county liable to litigation.
Marsha Haefner, though, said Oakville residents would be putting pressure on council members to take action.
“This is not a partisan issue,” said Haefner, who along with state Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, have spoken out against the facility’s construction. “This is a citizens’ rights issue. And everybody in St. Louis County needs to take notice. This is not an Oakville issue. This is an unincorporated St. Louis County issue. And how they handle this is going to send a message to everyone in unincorporated St. Louis County.”
Powers, though, contended that the commission made the right call.
“From a staff standpoint, we focus pretty much on the merits of the zoning and the land use capability,” Powers said. “We felt very strongly that the decision that was made a year ago was the correct one and that it will be a good land use. And it won’t cause harm to adjoining [property]. Ultimately, it will be a very valuable asset to the community.”