Tension boiled at city hall on May 15 during the longest Highland City Council meeting the city manager said he ever seen.
“The council tonight has some very, very tough decisions. You wouldn’t want to be sitting up here tonight,” said Mayor Joe Michaelis.
During the four-and-a-half hour meeting, the Highland City Council unanimously approved four controversial agenda items they had previously been voted down.
The items included requests to rezone two plats of land located at 12328 Sportsman Road and 245 Field Crossing Drive from R1-C, single-family residence to MX, mixed-use. Both pieces of land are owned by L&G Real Estate, and while the plat on Sportsman Road has no current plans for development, Wilken Development Group Ltd. plans to build a $5.8 million, “upscale,” 56-unit residential complex on Field Crossing site. The sites are located next to the Autumn Crest subdivision and Legacy Place.
This is the second time these items have been on the council’s agenda. During its meeting April 17, the council voted the items down, with only Councilman Rick Frey voting in favor of the rezoning, rendering the Wilken’s application for a special-use permit to operate their development useless. It was the first time in years the council had gone against the recommendation of the Combined Planning and Zoning Board, which said the development should be given a green light.
During the council meeting, the City Attorney Michael McGinley noted that the city has no specific ordinance or policy in place that puts a time limit on when a developer may bring an item back up for reconsideration. Because of this, anyone can bring their request back for reconsideration.
So, plans appeared for a second time during a special Combined Planning and Zoning Board meeting, where many neighbors from the nearby residential areas gathered to give their testimony against the project. But the requests were still recommended for a second time.
After the zoning board verdict, the residents rallied themselves for another fight.
Neighbors still say, “No”
While many voiced their opinions at the Planning and Zoning meeting, Lewis Dunning, who lives in the Autumn Crest subdivision with his wife Judy, spoke to the council as a representative for his neighbors.
To start his speech, Dunning thanked the council for its previous ruling, and said that the item reappearing on the agenda was a “slap in the face” to the residents and to the council.
Dunning also mentioned that the citizens were not upset with the council, they were angry with the zoning board.
“We feel like the zoning board thinks of us as nobodies,” Dunning said. “It makes us feel like we are talking to a brick wall.”
Dunning presented the council with a petition with 237 signatures opposing the development. Dunning presented the council with the petition before; the first time it only had 109 signatures.
He also raised concerns about traffic, noise, the image of their community, drainage issues, and increasing crime rates.
The complex is planned to have 56 units made up of two-to three-bedroom apartments and town-homes. The development is meant to be an “upscale” complex, with granite counter tops, vaulted ceilings, a dog park, coffee and tea in an on-site office, drop-off and pick-up dry cleaning services, a green-space, playground, pool and garaged parking, just to name a few amenities. But Dunning said the complex might not turn out as “upscale” as it was planned.
“If they have money to be upscale, they have money for drugs,” Dunning said, comparing upscale living to lavish lives of celebrities.
Dunning closed his speech by saying that if the development was approved, it would make the residents lose faith in the community. He threatened the end of their commitment to the city, saying he would no longer feel compelled to buy local.
After all of the testimony, Michaelis gave a short speech where he tried to remind the citizens that change is hard, but in the long run, it is usually good for the community. He asked the residents to have a neutral mind.
“This is not a time to tear each other down. It’s a time to be supportive,” Micahelis said.
The mayor urged those in opposition to think back on other developments that were previously opposed, but have helped the community and are now enjoyed. Michaelis also stressed that the city cares for its citizens, and while they might not see eye-to-eye on some decisions, the city staff will do anything to try to help.
“I would like to think we were friends when we walked in here,” Micahelis said. “We can be friends when we walk out of here. We walked in here as neighbors. We can be neighbors when we walk out of here.”
The council says, “Yes”
During the meeting, Councilman Aaron Schwarz explained to the crowd why he decided to change his vote on the development.
He said that he had learned some things that he did not realize about zoning law, specifically that properties always are annexed into the city as R1-C. He also said that while he voted against the rezoning before, a strong part of him wanted to vote in favor of it.
“I can say that this was one of the only times I haven’t been 100 percent confident in my vote,” Schwarz said.
Schwarz also mentioned that he believed that the developers were making moves to accommodate their neighbors, specifically agreeing to a 70-foot sound buffer that would be in between the subdivision and the development, as well as extra parking. His final point was that the city is always actively working to improve its tax base, so if Wilken Development hands the city a “gift,” it would be wrong not to take it.
Councilwoman Peggy Bellm said that her decision was changed because she had more information from staff than she had previously. She also felt it was rare to receive so much input in favor of agenda items, both the Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Development Commission expressed support for the change.
Bellm also mentioned that the zoning changes are consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. She said that she believes, as council members, it is their job to help ensure “continued positive and careful growth for Highland.”
Bellm, who previously served on the Planning and Zoning Board, said the board “carefully and diligently” reviews items, and she believes that if the items came through the board twice with a positive review, it is something that will ultimately be good for Highland.
“It is always a difficult decision when we hear from so many individuals against a change,” Bellm said. “There were at least three people in the audience who I consider good friends. But my job is to look at the whole picture and make a decision that I feel is in the best interest of Highland for the long term.”
Councilman Neill Nicolaides said something similar to his fellow council members, that he believed the change was positive, but it was a hard decision to make.
“We made some people happy tonight, and we made some people not,” Nicolaides said.
After both of the rezoning agenda items were passed, all of the residents in the crowd stood up and left. The council went on to pass the special use permit.
“I’d like to say lots of things, but nothing is nice enough to put in the paper,” Dunning said a few days after the meeting.
Dunning said that he was disappointed by the decision, to say the least.
“We’re really truly disheartened with the decision,” Dunning said. “But I don’t think there is anything we can do about it.”
Developer pledges cooperation
After the meeting, developers Brad and Austin Wilken were relieved that the long process was over.
“We are feeling pretty good,” Brad Wilken said. “We feel in the end they made the right decision.”
The Wilkens wanted to make sure that the residents who voiced their concerns at the meeting were heard. Brad Wilken said that while they develop the complex, they will do everything they can to work with their neighbors.
“We hear their concerns, and we want to work with them,” Wilken said. “We want them to know that they are heard.”