Planning panel OKs changes to notification process on zoning issues

Changes in response to outcry from Oakville residents over senior housing complex

By Gloria Lloyd

The St. Louis County Planning Commission recently voted unanimously to approve changes to the way the Department of Planning notifies county residents about zoning issues.

Although three residents at the public hearing on the proposal last month told the planning panel that the changes do not go far enough and the county should change the newspaper in which it publishes zoning advertisements, at its March 10 meeting the planning panel accepted 8-0 the planning department’s recommendation to approve the changes, originally recommended by a committee set up to study the issue.

One of the planning panel members voting in favor of the changes, Molly McHugh, was reappointed to the board a few weeks ago and did not attend the Feb. 24 public hearing on the proposal.

The changes are in response to the pushback last year by Oakville residents over a senior apartment building funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. The building’s neighbors, including the nuns of the Monastery of St. Clare and Goddard School owner Cindy Pyatt, said they received no notification about the three-story National Church Residences complex, which is set to open in June.

No mention was made by the planning panel or in the planning department’s report on the zoning changes presented to the Planning Commission the night of the vote regarding pending state legislation introduced by Oakville’s legislators Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, and Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-Oakville, who are pushing for state law to require notifications be published in a newspaper with a circulation greater than 10,000.

In their report, county planning staff write that while the committee recommendations came about due to the Oakville senior complex and while they “certainly acknowledge some dissatisfaction with the process,” they do not see a problem in how the Oakville building was handled and “contend … the petitioned site was properly noticed.”

“The public hearing (for the complex) on March 19, 2012 was well attended, as several of the petitioned cases were in south county locations (typically the county has had no shortage of large crowds as a result of the notification process),” the report continues.

Typical public hearings held by the county regularly attract 10 or fewer residents, but the hearing with the largest attendance was an unprecedented second public hearing mandated by the County Council on the NCR building last summer and attended by hundreds of Oakville residents. At that hearing, Oakville resident Lynn Link noted that no one from Oakville had actually attended the original hearing.

“Had we been notified and given proper notice, the people here today would have appeared at that original meeting,” she said. “We know that the county could have contacted the Oakville Call, and they do that when they want us to vote for something … You’ve heard twice from NCR. Today, you will finally hear from those of us in Oakville for the first time.”

At that same 2012 public hearing, the Mehlville School District requested rezoning for a bus depot at Ringer and Lemay Ferry roads, an issue unrelated to the elderly housing facility. A symbolic vote taken on the Mehlville issue showed 7 in favor and 4 against, with most residents in attendance for the Mehlville issue leaving before the public hearing on the NCR building.

No one spoke for or against the building at the public hearing, and neighbors of the building did not learn about the project until last year, when NCR demolished the single-family house that had been on the property for decades and broke ground on the new complex.

Spurred by the NCR building as well as past issues in which residents feel the county neglected Oakville like the trash-hauling districts and the trash-transfer station, Haefner and a group of Oakville citizens called Citizens for Responsive Government are looking into the unincorporated area’s prospects for either incorporation or breaking off into its own county.

“(County officials) may have, in their mind, done everything they had to do, but they left Oakville residents in the dark,” Haefner said.

Although NCR likewise maintains that zoning notifications were sent by the county and followed all the county’s guidelines, during the furor over the building last year, NCR spokeswoman Karen Twinem said she hoped the county would update its notifications due to the resident concerns.

“The best thing that could come out of this is that they change the way they inform people,” she said. “That’s probably a good outcome.