The view could legally be devoured by single-family homes, but a developer wants much more on the property: 256 apartments. For the second time in a few months, Helt and her neighbors are battling an effort to rezone the semirural stretch of North Waukomis Drive.
Last September they appeared to have defeated the project. The Kansas City Plan Commission, an eight-member board appointed by the mayor, unanimously rejected the rezoning after a four-hour hearing with residents of the area, all of whom opposed the project because they saw it as too large.
But thanks to city councilman Paul Danaher, the development is back on track. Ultimately, the plan commission's ruling and the residents' wishes are secondary to the power of city hall.
On February 20, the land in question, zoned for single-family dwellings, will be considered for rezoning by the city council's planning, zoning and economic-development committee.
Residents have renewed their opposition. But many complain they have been unable to meet with the property owner, Diane McGuire, and their meetings with Danaher have left them feeling run around. "Why do you force the people who oppose this to go to multiple forums to defend their cause?" Helt says.
For years, the 47-acre parcel belonged to local businessman Max Flicker, who ran a furniture factory north of the river. In 1999, developer Joe McGuire bought 12 acres atop a small bluff, which he developed into homes. His ex-wife, Diane McGuire, a real-estate agent, purchased the remaining 35 acres a few months later. According to minutes of a plan-commission meeting last September, she intended to run the horse stables until she could devise a plan to sell or develop the site.
McGuire's neighbors say they don't oppose all new construction there, just that of multiunit housing. But McGuire says building single-family homes there wouldn't be economically feasible because she would have to sell thirty or forty lots at $80,000 to $100,000 each. "In that location no one is going to pay that," she says. A complex of apartments, however, has sufficient density to make the project profitable.
Diane McGuire says she has been a real estate agent for twenty years. "I sell real estate in the area. I'm not about to cut my own throat," she says.
The apartment buildings, according to the plan commission's September 2001 minutes, will likely have brick fronts. They will also be market rate; rent for a three-bedroom unit is projected to run as high as $1,000 a month. Although McGuire doesn't think the homeowners objecting to her plans are being unreasonable, she says, "what I'm asking to do is not unreasonable, either."
Under city ordinance, once a development proposal has been denied by the commission, a developer can revise the plan and pay $1,000 to resubmit it. A developer can also resubmit the plan unaltered after one year. And city council members can revive proposals themselves. McGuire took the third option and contacted Danaher. "What I did after that was strictly protocol," she says.
"These are just the steps in place for fifty years," Danaher says. "That's one of the steps available to the developer." Still, the council usually upholds the plan commission's decision. In this case, the council must also weigh the recommendation of yet another committee, the paid staff members of the city's planning department -- who recommended the apartment project.
Danaher says he is neither for nor against the project. He says he put the proposal back on the table because he doesn't feel plan-commission members are qualified to rule on such matters.
"They're not elected," Danaher says of the commission members who heard public opposition to the rezoning. "They have no accountability. They're well-paid volunteers." Staffers with the city's department of planning and development are "professionals who've gotten degrees. Their job is to professionally evaluate it," Danaher says.
Virginia Walsh, a manager in the planning department, says, "The role of the commission is to hear public testimony. They don't have political interests elected officials might have."
Charles Myers, chair of the commission, says he can't discuss the proposal as long as it remains active. But he responds to Danaher's charge, saying, "A lot of us have been on the commission a long time, and we take our role very seriously. I wouldn't consider us novices."
To back up their antidevelopment stance, residents point to a 1976 city plan for development in the Line Creek area. The plan warned against the "heavy impact" of projects with more than 200 units that have "exactly similar architecture, age and maintenance quality."
Further, the Line Creek Plan recommended the area maintain a density of less than 8.7 units an acre. When the entire property is taken into account, the proposed development would have a density of only 8.3 units an acre. But Helt and others say that if density is calculated for the land that will actually be developed, the density is more than fourteen units an acre. McGuire says her calculations follow city regulations, and city planner Larry Stice agrees.
But density is not the residents' only concern. Northland counties are rich with artifacts from cultures that lived there as long as 11,000 years ago. Late last year, at the insistence of neighbors, Diane McGuire invited Bert Wetherill, president of the Kansas City Archaeological Society, to survey the property. More artifacts turned up, including small fragments of pottery, an ancient tool and daub, a claylike weatherproofing material. Wetherill would like to return this spring with more sophisticated equipment to continue searching. "I would love to see that site preserved," Wetherill says.
Kansas City Parks Commissioner Sandra Aust has formed a nonprofit group called the National Center for Indigenous American Cultures to try to preserve sites like these in the city. "Once these sites are destroyed, they're gone forever," she says.
Clint Simmons' home is on the other side of the proposed development. Apartments would abut the retiree's property on three sides. Though McGuire has offered to let him upgrade from a septic tank by connecting to the apartment complex's sewer system, he is still unhappy. "I think I made a bad investment," Simmons concludes. "I'm not in a position to go out and buy another home. I hate it. My wife hates it. But life goes on."
Helt expects more than a hundred people at the February meeting of city council members who serve on the zoning committee. "[The developers] say they're in it for the long haul. Well, I've got news for [them]: So are we." If the committee passes the proposal to the full council, residents can still file a petition. But the odds would be long. "This is pretty much do or die," says Kevin Seaquist, Helt's neighbor. "If it gets past this committee, I don't think we'll have a chance."