By Polly Keary, Editor
The people trying to keep a piece of property at the east edge of Monroe from being rezoned to allow for commercial use got a setback last week when a hearing examiner ruled on their appeal in favor of the city.
Heritage Baptist Fellowship for years has been trying to get a piece of undeveloped land near Woods Creek, below the bluff on which rests Rivmont Drive, zoned Commercial so they could sell it and build a new church.
Currently the land is zoned Limited Open Space, which means the land could at most be sold for certain agriculture uses or homes on five-acre lots.
The church may be closer than ever before to its goal.
The environmental impact study they commissioned has survived an appeal.
An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is a necessary step for rezoning the land and changing the city’s comprehensive plan to reflect the land use designation change.
The last time the church commissioned such a study, the city accepted the study, but neighbors of the land appealed, and a hearing examiner overturned the city’s decision and rejected the EIS.
So this time, the church paid for a more thorough study.
Nearby residents Lowell Anderson and Jeffrey Rogers filed an appeal and Nov. 7 appeared before Hearing Examiner Carl Cox.
The hearing examiner heard arguments from the company that did the EIS, which was strongly favorable to the rezone, and from the people opposed to it, who argued that the EIS was flawed.
Thursday, in a 33-page ruling, Cox found that the appellants failed to prove that the EIS was deficient.
While Cox did discuss some of the merits of the various arguments, he relied heavily on the “Rule of Reason,” which means that “an EIS is adequate if it contains a reasonably thorough discussion of the significant aspects of the probably environmental consequences” of the potential rezone.
Therefore, in order to successfully challenge the EIS, the appellants would have had to show that the EIS didn’t contain a reasonably thorough discussion of those consequences.
In the ruling, Cox addressed each of the major points brought by the appellants.
In order to rezone land, the city has to consider several alternatives, including what would happen if the zoning was left the same. The EIS argued that it could be subdivided for housing or used for some business purposes under its current zoning. The opponents said the EIS should have considered the “no action” alternative to be what would happen if the land was left intact.
Cox concluded that, under the Rule of Reason, the city, which signed off on the EIS earlier, had given the matter adequate discussion.
The appellants also argued that the EIS had been wrong regarding the amount of earth that would have to be moved in order to bring the developable part above flood levels, and to make up for that fill by cutting away land elsewhere to make room for those intermittent floodwaters.
Again, Cox stated that the EIS had given the matter adequate discussion.
The issue of flooding was concerning, Cox acknowledged.
“I found testimony and evidence presented by appellants and concerned citizens compelling, and have no doubt that the property has seen serious flooding in the past,” he wrote.
Opponents of the rezone argued that the EIS underestimated the amount of flooding that happens on that land, and showed photos of it submerged.
But still, he found, the EIS contained adequate consideration of the matter.
“Discussion and analysis in this section of the FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement) makes clear that significant work is required to elevate the developable area on the property to meet floodplain level,” he wrote. “The FEIS provides sufficient discussion and analysis for the reader concerning elevating the grade of the developable area on the property to meet floodplain development requirements such as to reasonably inform the reader of the significant aspects of the probably environmental consequences of the proposed action.”
Cox also found that the city has adequately discussed the issue of extending utilities to the site, access to the site from U.S. 2, economic feasibility, the methodology used to determine cut and fill requirements, and potential conflict with the Growth Management Act.
The appellants have 10 days to ask for a reconsideration.
The Monroe City Council will otherwise make a final decision on the rezone and comprehensive plan amendment at the regular meeting of the City Council Dec. 17.