County planning panel in ‘uncharted waters,’ chairman says

Panel to reconsider zoning of site in Oakville on July 15

By Gloria Lloyd

In decades spent on the county Planning Commission, Wayne Hilzinger has never seen anything like the current furor over an Oakville apartment complex for the elderly, which the County Council recently voted to send back to the planning panel for possible rezoning.

“We’re in uncharted waters here,” said Oakville resident Hilzinger, who serves as commission chair. “In all the years I’ve been on Planning and Zoning, this has never occurred.”

Hundreds of Oakville residents have spoken out at a series of town-hall meetings against the $5.1 million, three-story, 45-unit, 41,778-square-foot senior apartment complex, for reasons ranging from its size and location next to a preschool to the federal government subsidies that fund it and the lack of notification residents believe the county gave them about the public hearings.

The Planning Commission will conduct its second public hearing on the apartment building at 7 p.m. Monday, July 15, in the County Council Chambers at the Administration Building, 41 S. Central Ave., Clayton. Just like they did for the County Council meeting, residents are setting up buses to Clayton to make it easier for Oakville residents to attend.

Despite statements by County Executive Charlie Dooley that retroactively changing the development’s rezoning could open the county up to a costly lawsuit from its developer, Ohio-based National Church Residences, Hilzinger said the panel is not going into the upcoming hearing with a preconceived idea of what it will decide.

“I think we’re open at this point,” he said. “To do anything else would be unfair to the residents who want to have a say. In my view, the Planning Commission gets the opportunity to hear both sides, and the ultimate goal is to work out … Is there a middle ground that everyone can live with? Normally, that’s the goal. We’re just going to see what happens. We’re there to listen.”

Besides Hilzinger, the nine-member Planning Commission has two other members who live in Oakville — Steve Lawler and Bill Sneed. The other members of the appointed panel live in north county, Kirkwood, Richmond Heights and Ballwin.

Hilzinger first sat on the planning board in 1991, when he was appointed by then-County Executive Buzz Westfall. He has been on the commission since then, with the exception of a three-year term he spent on the Mehlville Board of Education.

The issue is difficult since National Church Residences, or NCR, bought the $575,000 property based on its successful rezoning and has since received building permits and other permissions from St. Louis County based on that approval, he noted.

“But ultimately, the County Council has the final say,” Hilzinger said.

Following the public hearing, the Planning Commission will make its decision in August at the earliest, after it receives a recommendation from the county’s planning staff. The issue then heads again to the County Council, where an approval could be vetoed by Dooley. The council could override a veto with a supermajority of five votes. Its vote to remand the zoning back to the Planning Commission was 5-1, with one abstention.

At the original March 2012 public hearing on the property, NCR asked to change the zoning from R-2 single-family residential to R-8 residential, which allows for multi-family housing. No one spoke in opposition to the apartment building, and the Planning Commission and County Council unanimously approved the rezoning.

Although the county said it sent out postcards as a courtesy to property owners within 1,000 feet, few residents report receiving the postcards or seeing the sign posted at the property. Dooley’s south county liaison, Jonathan Boesch, has said that the Department of Planning’s usual legal notifications failed in this case.

Hilzinger said he remembers the hearing in question vaguely.

“The reason I say that is because, as has been reported, no one came to the hearing,” he said. “We had no real input from the community for or against, so it really was a pretty obscure zoning request at the time. There are zonings, such as the Wal-Mart over on Tesson Ferry, that generate comments.

“And this one just did not … And what the Planning Commission did at the time, is they accepted the recommendation of the Planning Department because they had no reason to do anything different.”

NCR is paying for construction through a $6.1 million capital grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. The complex will also use HUD Section 202 federal housing vouchers for rent subsidies for its tenants, who will be low-income senior citizens age 62 and older. By HUD regulations, it must remain a senior citizens’ apartment complex for 40 years.

Public hearing notices posted and documents provided during the public hearing do not mention the HUD funding for the facility, and the Planning Commission is only allowed to consider uses of a property, not ask about financing or who is paying for a development, Hilzinger said. For example, the panel could not rezone a site based on whether a proposed restaurant was going to be a McDonald’s or a Burger King — it could only rule on whether a fast-food restaurant is appropriate for the site in question.

Looking back on the board’s decision, Hilzinger noted that no residents spoke in opposition, and the county Department of Planning recommended approval of the development, writing in its planning report that the building met all county guidelines.

In hindsight, he also believes the board took the Goddard School next door into consideration, believing a residential use would be better than commercial.

At the time, a single-family house occupied the site.

“One of the big issues has been that it is sitting next to Goddard. Even though (the lot) was residential at the time, I don’t think anybody would disagree that it’s in a location that’s going to be a commercial zoning,” he said. “I think in some respects, discounting the size or the three stories … to be next to a day care, a residential (development) seemed at the time a better alternative than a full-blown commercial establishment.”

NCR is focusing its efforts right now on reaching out to community leaders and preparing for the public hearing, NCR spokeswoman Karen Twinem said.

Construction continues at the site, where the county has posted signs announcing the second public hearing.

Twinem previously told the Call that NCR has already spent more than $1.1 million on the property and has legal authorization for all rezoning, permits and construction at the site, so it believes the County Council’s retroactive action is illegal.

However, proponents of the new rezoning hearing, including 6th District County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, say that following the council’s decision, NCR should stop construction until the rezoning has been decided.