By Polly Keary, Editor
A spokesperson for a company that completed an Environmental Impact Statement on a piece of rural property in East Monroe that the owner hopes to get rezoned to commercial told the planning commission Thursday that commercial development could be good for the environment.
Some residents, however, questioned the EIS and told the planning commission during the following public hearing that they planned to argue against it.
And the pastor representing the church that owns the land broke a long media silence and explained that he doesn’t feel the city has ever given the proposal a fair hearing, and said he hopes this time to prevail after years of frustration.
In a PowerPoint presentation to the planning commission Thursday night at City Hall, Susan Boyd of engineering company Pace presented an Environmental Impact Statement their firm conducted for Heritage Baptist Fellowship, the owner of a piece of land along U.S. 2 at the east edge of town they hope to get rezoned from Limited Open Space to General Commercial.
There are some constraints on the land, she noted.
Among them are the presence of a stream, wetlands, a shoreline, a native growth protection area, a steep slope above the property and a floodplain. Also, there are issues of potential noise, aesthetic impacts, traffic, public utilities and services to be considered.
Because of those constraints, of the nearly 43 acres owned by the church, only about 11 are viable for commercial development, she said.
In order to develop that 11 acres, part of it would have to be filled to raise it above the FEMA-identified floodplain. Boyd said the developer could mitigate for that by replacing the flood-storage capacity elsewhere, by enhancing drainage, removing invasive species and improving habitat.
“These are not high-functioning wetlands or streams,” she said. “They need help and by doing the proposed mitigation strategy we can enhance drainage and increase habitat function.”
With city sewer and water, there would be no need for septic or wells there, she went on.
And improved drainage would increase the health of the shoreline of the stream, she argued.
The appearance of the quiet, empty piece of land would change, she acknowledged, but noted that under the current zoning, it would still be legal to build several houses, a church or even a slaughterhouse there.
As for traffic, which could increase by more than 5,000 trips per day, a frontage road along U.S. 2 or a roundabout on the highway itself could address the increase, she said.
Developing the site could be good for both the community and the environment, she said.
“I think people think that not developing is best for the environment, but it’s not in this case. The current condition is poor and will continue to deteriorate without corrective action,” she said. “Low impact development is allowing us to do a lot more with property, and the location offers itself to economic development. We have been told there is a shortage of commercial land along U.S. 2, and this would help.”
Following the presentation, however, several citizens contested the findings.
“We’re here to tell you that the EIS is flawed,” said Lowell Anderson, who lives on Rivmont Drive above the property in question.
He argued that the parcel isn’t commercially viable, saying that developing it, with required traffic measures such as a roundabout or a frontage road, would make development prohibitively expensive.
To rezone it to commercial, therefore, would not result in commercial development, but could knock $100,000 off the property value of each of the landowners above the site, he said.
And he said he didn’t believe the flood control measures would work, saying it could result in catastrophic flooding.
Jeff Rogers, also a resident of the bluff above the site, said that the Department of Transportation should weigh in before any action is taken.
And he worried about the stability of the bluff.
If you cut and fill to raise the property above the flood plain, that means you’re going to displace water in other areas,” he said. “The toe of that slope is already at risk of landslide. It seems the water will move against the toe of the slope. That needs to be effectively addressed.”
Another neighbor argued that FEMA predicts more flooding as the climate changes.
“If you look at the map, Monroe can expect 20-40 percent more flooding by 2020 and 90-100 percent more by the end of the century,” he said.
Bob Martin, a former planning commissioner who lives above the site, said that the piece of land was always deemed a protected gateway to Monroe.
Throughout the exchange, Thomas Minnick, the pastor of Heritage Baptist Fellowship, sat quietly and declined to comment before the commission.
After the meeting, he cautiously offered some comments, saying that the process has been politically fraught from the start, and that he feels the city hasn’t ever given the church a fair hearing.
Now, more than a decade after the church initially bought the land, he and his congregation are weary and disheartened, as well as financially at a considerable loss.
His church, a small congregation of about 100, first bought the land in 1998, he said, hoping to build a church there and subdivide it into lots to sell for houses to recoup the investment. That was allowable under the current zoning, and he said he’d been assured repeatedly by the city that it would be a simple process.
But some potential buyers had expressed interest in buying the extra land for commercial use. So the church went to the city to see if it would be possible to apply for a rezone.
“Everything changed,” said Minnick, who grew emotional at times during his account. “It became a big, expensive, arduous process.”
In order to get a rezone, first one must apply to get included on the planning commission’s work schedule for the following year.
Heritage Baptist couldn’t get scheduled.
Each time the church tried, it cost a lot of money and took a lot of time, Minnick noted.
In the meantime, just getting the boundary line adjustments and short plat for the church under the existing zoning took about six years and $70,000 in fees.
So the church gave up and leased a building at the old Iron Eagle Driving Range on Currie Road. That landowner was willing to sell to the church, and the church again hoped to subdivide and resell part of the land to pay for the church.
But they found themselves unable to get that on the docket, either.
“We lost a lot more money,” Minnick said. “We were denied docketing on four or five occasions between Iron Eagle and East Monroe.”
The process had gotten badly politicized and that hamstrung it, he believes.
Last year, for the first time, the church, along with one other landowner, was able to get the East Monroe proposal on the docket. The landowners submitted a partial EIS, one that would require developers to do more impact studies later.
The city council then voted 5-2 to approve the rezone.
But residents of the area appealed to the hearing examiner, who threw out the decision, saying the partial EIS was not thorough enough.
So the church, now working alone, spent $150,000 on the current, far more detailed EIS, according to Minnick.
Now the church is so burned out on the process that the idea of building a church on land at East Monroe, even if they do get the rezone, is distasteful, said Minnick. He only hopes the rezone will allow them to recover the money they’ve lost on it so far.
He thinks the process has been misunderstood by the community, he added the following day in an email:
“I’m certain some people in our community have misunderstood what has happened in our history with the city,” he wrote. “This is because a few people have repeatedly misstated the history of the application. In fact, the city council has never voted ‘no’ on our rezone application. The only ‘no’ votes have been votes about docketing the proposal, or putting it on the calendar for consideration. For all other property owners, these votes are simply procedural rubber stamps. If you fill out the application, pay the fee, you get on the docket. But in our case, past planning commissions and councils repeatedly voted to deny us access to the process that is available to every other property owner in Monroe. These votes were not about the merits of our request. We were never allowed to make our case! Last year was the very first time we were ever allowed to actually come before the council and make our case for the rezone application. And when that happened, the council voted overwhelmingly (5-2) to approve the request. That’s because General Commercial is the only thing that makes sense on this beautiful Highway 2 parcel. When we were finally able to make our case, the council overwhelmingly agreed.”
The city will continue to accept written comment on the EIS through September 13. The final draft of the EIS will be available to the public on Sept. 27.