A Developing Problem

Alex Cruz is a Kansas City, Missouri, police officer. Cruz, his wife, Kathy, and their two children live in a stretch of woods west of U.S. 169 in Kansas City North. Their neighbors, Cindy Dickerson and Darren Ivey, also are cops. And as cops, they’re required to live in the city they patrol.

“We are no different from others looking for a piece of the suburban ‘good life’ in Kansas City,” Cruz says of their choice to live in the Northland, the only part of town where there’s still room to spread out.

Like many suburbanites, they naively believed their neighborhood would remain pristine forever. “My wife and I looked at over 40 houses before we picked this one three years ago,” Cruz says. “We based our decision on what would be best for our peace of mind and our kids. Now everything is different. The nature of my investment has changed, and I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

In February, Cruz’s neighbors found a crumpled, handwritten notice in the bushes along N.W. 68th Street. For months, construction had closed off parts of the shoulder where the sign was hidden. Had Cruz’s neighbors not taken a walk on the newly opened stretch of road, they wouldn’t have found out about a public hearing regarding Falcon Ridge and The Vineyards, two developments slated to go in at N.W. 68th Street and North Bell.

Cruz called his city councilmembers, Paul Danaher and Bonnie Sue Cooper, to get details on the project. He found out that for Dennis Curtain of the CM Curtain Family Trust to build Falcon Ridge, the land along N.W. 68th Street would have to be rezoned. For more than 40 years it had been set aside for single-family housing. Curtain was planning to build a convenience store and gas station, so the property would have to be rezoned for commercial use. And large swaths of existing single-family zoning would be changed to accommodate apartments, townhouses, and duplexes.

Then, in March, Vineyards developer Brian Bechler filed his plan to put The Vineyards next door to Falcon Ridge. The 33-acre tract would be zoned for single-family residences (half would need to be rezoned from agricultural use to single-family).

Cruz asked Cooper and Danaher how the people who lived in his neighborhood could become involved as the projects went through the city-approval process. Cooper and Danaher told Cruz the first step was to form a neighborhood association. After that, the new organization would need to prepare a presentation for the City Plan Commission. They also said it would be best for the group to select one or two leaders to deal with the city council, city planners, and the developer.

Cruz and his neighbors followed the advice. In late February, they founded the North Star Neighborhood Association — the city’s newest neighborhood organization.

A growing cadre of interested neighbors went to work. Cruz, his wife, Dickerson, Ivey, and Larry Thrasher formed committees to research and build a presentation to counter the developments based on economic, zoning, and codes enforcement arguments. Michele Rhoades headed up a committee that researched flooding and made contacts with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Shortly after they founded North Star, Cruz and other members met with Falcon Ridge representatives. They also talked with Bechler, of the Mission-based Vineyard Investment Company. Surprisingly, they got Falcon Ridge to drop its strip mall and gas station and to put in office buildings and parking instead, and to drop some multifamily housing in favor of single-family homes. As for their discussions with Bechler, he scuttled plans for 12 homes (out of 68) that encroached on the floodplain of Old Maid Creek, making way for a 3-acre park instead.

Attorney Michael Burke, of King Hershey Coleman Koch & Stone, represented Falcon Ridge developer Dennis Curtain. He says neighbors’ objections convinced him to persuade his client to change the plans. The original commercial aspects of the development “probably didn’t fit,” he admits. “The gas station and convenience store would have had an adverse impact on creating a high-quality development. We are far better than we started out.”

There was still one messy problem, though.

Alex Cruz’s tiny, isolated subdivision follows the Old Maid Creek bottom, a tributary to Line Creek. Twenty years ago, flooding along the creek was nonexistent. But now every time there’s a substantial rain, an angry wash of mud and sand scours the creek bed behind the homes — stormwater runoff from acres of new roofs and parking lots upstream that dump rainwater into the Line Creek watershed faster than it can drain.

Nearly 50 feet of Michele Rhoades’ backyard have given way. “This was my father’s house,” Rhoades says. “When he moved here 25 years ago, there wasn’t a problem. This was not considered a floodplain. But he has been dealing with the city on this for over 13 years.”

On August 1, both the Falcon Ridge and Vineyards proposals went before the City Plan Commission.

North Star representatives had prepared their presentation. Cruz opened, stating common suburban anxieties over traffic congestion, increased crime, and stress on the already thinly stretched emergency and city infrastructures and services. He also talked about the flooding problems.

After Cruz’s remarks, each of the North Star representatives presented six months’ worth of work. Rhoades had found that developers of Metro North Mall — and much of the subsequent development along Barry Road, including the mammoth Toys “R” Us, Kohl’s, and Target stores — never were required to control stormwater runoff. She showed a video of Old Maid Creek washing up and over backyards, sometimes close to the homes along the creek — after two inches of steady rain. She said that although high water always had been a concern, flooding, like that in the video, had not been a problem until after 1993, when much of the development along U.S. 169 began.

The group then turned to why the properties should remain zoned for only single-family homes. Thrasher presented research showing more than 82,900 square feet of empty retail and commercial space in strip centers and the Metro North and Barry Woods shopping malls. He also pointed out that the AMC theater at Metro North soon will close, opening significant space. And according to Cindy Dickerson’s findings, none of the nearby apartment developments on Englewood, North Broadway, U.S. Highway 168, I-29, and Barry Road was at full capacity; more than 10,000 units in the area remained empty.

It was, they thought, a well-rounded presentation. But the Plan Commission voted 4-1 and 3-2 to recommend that the City Council approve Falcon Ridge and The Vineyards.

“I think they had already made up their minds,” Dickerson remembers. “We got a hearing, but only a couple members took us seriously. The others acted like we were wasting their time.”

Darren Ivey was similarly upset. He says the neighborhood group knew the projects were going to go through but that its members thought they could stop the commercial and multifamily rezoning of Falcon Ridge. “We wanted to stop it until safeguards against flooding and erosion were in place,” he says. But the fact that the developments lie in an area prone to flooding doesn’t seem to matter, says Cruz.

After the votes, Cruz says, “We felt the developers had been working with city staff to fit the development into the codes and planning requirements. After that, it was locked up.”

On August 2, Cruz got an e-mail from City Planner Patty Noll that validated his theory. He had contacted Noll months earlier. He says she was one of the people who had encouraged him to organize his neighborhood group and create a presentation the Plan Commission would take seriously.

In her e-mail, Noll wrote that the North Star presentation “was very well organized”; however, the city “cannot dictate market forces or would be legally challenged on a regular basis. Nor can they dictate type of units, cost of units, etc. due to civil rights and antidiscrimination laws.”

Cruz and his neighbors came away feeling as if they’d been lied to all along. “What is the use of having them hold public hearings when it’s already decided? What is the use of having a ‘development process’ when it is a rubber stamp for development?”

The Plan Commission’s approval of Falcon Ridge and The Vineyards presents a textbook case of how the development “process” doesn’t work for citizens who want a say in how their neighborhoods grow.

Noll says North Star had a strong argument with regard to flooding in the Line Creek Valley. “But the problem was that the two cases were heard on the same docket. They are vastly different, and it is unfortunate. Falcon Ridge sits on a hill (and) is not in a floodplain. It will result in a 0.4 percent increase in water runoff, but water will go into the creek long before water from Metro North and Barry Road gets to the neighborhood. The Plan Commission felt it would not contribute to the flooding situation.”

The Vineyards development is another matter. Noll says she would have “preferred the Plan Commission deny the Vineyards case. I was not the planner on that case. If I were, I would have recommended denial. The problem is that in past, as development occurs, each development has contributed a minimal increase to the water runoff problem. All of them add up.”

Such contradictions — even though each project contributes to the overall problem, each meets approval requirements — are common with regard to development. Cruz points out that the city has known about the increased danger of flooding since at least 1990, when the Public Works Department initiated a plan to handle stormwater in the Line Creek Valley. At that time, the department hired Black & Veatch Engineers-Architects to suggest recommendations for stormwater management. The study was to have taken 10 months, with the city acting upon recommendations soon after.

But nothing has happened. Meanwhile, the widening of Barry Road and N.W. 68th Street west of U.S. 169 has attracted new development to the Line Creek watershed. City planners try to control stormwater runoff development by development, but the cumulative effect won’t be dealt with for some time.

Cooper says the city council is saddled with “cleaning up a mess — a mess we are going to have all over the north. In Line Creek, there is nothing to catch the water from Barry Road and Metro North and from the highways. We can have new developers handle their water, but that doesn’t solve the problems. We need public retention basins, diversions, and other water control facilities.”

But that doesn’t stop her from saying she’d vote for Falcon Ridge’s and The Vineyards’ approval if they meet city requirements.

Noll says that the group focused on the wrong issues in front of the Plan Commission. “They brought photos of vacant storefronts and buildings where businesses were now defunct. The commission cannot deny because of that. The market will decide where development goes. Our interest lies merely in land use.

“They spent too much effort in fighting commercial and retail rezoning issues,” Noll adds. “If they would have asked me about that, I would have told them.”

But, Cruz counters, “If she knew what we were supposed to do, why didn’t she tell us that? It was a part of making sure we felt like we were doing something, when we really weren’t. We feel like we were sold hope. Our representatives told us what we could do; the planning department seemed to tell us some of the same things. Then we find out that nothing we could have brought up against that rezoning, which is a market issue, was good enough.

“I see this happening all over — not just in one or two places — and know how irresponsible the city is being. The Plan Commission and city council, I have discovered, rubber stamp pieces that come before them. What is their use?”

Cruz also doesn’t buy Noll’s argument that the city could be sued if it failed to approve the development. “To me they are afraid to face developers.”

But City Council Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development chair Ed Ford says the legal questions aren’t excuses. At the heart of the issue is the fact that rezoning for the Falcon Ridge and Vineyards is based on the 24-year-old Line Creek Valley Area Plan, one of 46 such plans prepared by the city around 1976. The area plans are the basic land-use documents developers rely on when buying land for development, and the old Line Creek plan calls for the area to be rezoned.

“If an investor bought land depending on that rezoning, and we don’t do it, we can get sued,” Ford says.

Falcon Ridge developers have owned the land for decades; Vineyards developer Bechler bought his land a year ago based on the old area plan, and recent improvements to N.W. 68th Street have made both developments possible.

And, Ford says, once the city builds a road, it has to follow the area plan. “If there is an existing plan for the area, and the development conforms with that plan, and we say no, the city gets sued. And we get sued every time we say no to something.”

When the city loses in court, it either has to approve developers’ plans or compensate landowners for lost value of property due to city decisions. Several councilmembers say they do not fear getting sued. But they also say that they avoid turning developers away.

Cooper says she can’t deny a development plan because she doesn’t like it, “because of federal law and all of that. I can vote no if they do not meet the watershed, congestion standards, or if the roads aren’t there. But if the developer handles his water, that is out. If the roads are in, or planned, that’s out. If the development meets city standards on density, that’s out. Just because I don’t want an area developed, or the neighbors don’t, I can’t stop it. If I do, I put the city at risk of legal action.”

City officials admit that the area plan is obsolete and that all of the city’s area plans need reevaluation. But the Line Creek Area Plan will not be changed for the neighbors, nor will a new plan be plotted soon.

Noll says neighbors need to come together to get area plans changed. But citizens must rely on their councilmembers to put the issue before the entire council. And by the time a developer has submitted an application, it is already too late — and the Plan Commission and the council’s Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee hear public testimony only after the developer’s plans are well under way.

So North Star has to depend on Second District councilmembers to introduce changes to the Line Creek Area Plan, neither of whom show interest in doing so. Paul Danaher did not return calls for this story, but Cooper says the council shouldn’t meddle in area plans. “We have overall street and area plans so that if a developer goes into an area, he knows where to invest, what the road situation will be, what the planned zoning is. We have had road-widening and rezoning plans for N.W. 68th Street for years. I believe it is best to follow the plan. That way people know, and developers know, what is going to happen.”

But the council frequently changes area plans to aid developers. The Line Creek Area Plan has been revised twice in the past five years to accommodate commercial development along Barry Road and apartments and houses on Waukomis Road. And in 1997, the city council altered the Plaza Area Plan to accommodate car dealer Cecil Van Tuyl’s proposal to redevelop an entire block west of the Plaza. The council changed the plan to allow the development to be denser with higher buildings than had been allowed by the area’s original plan (despite the council’s modifications, however, neighborhood opposition eventually helped quash the Van Tuyl project). Similarly, the council has changed area plans for the Power & Light District, redevelopment around the former Hoechst Marion Roussel pharmaceutical complex, and the long-stalled Midtown Marketplace (also known as the Glover Plan).

“If the developer wants to do something different with his land, we often change the plan to accommodate the development,” Ford says.

So the city’s argument that it had to stick with the area plan was hypocritical, at best — it will change area plans for developers, but not for neighborhoods.

The lawsuit argument was flimsy too.

Mayoral spokesman Joe Serviss says the city rarely gets sued over development issues. In the past five years, it has happened no more than a handful of times. Over the past two years, the city has been sued four times over development decisions. (In 1998, the city denied commercial rezoning for a development at Bennington and Parvin roads; the developer fought the decision, and this year a Clay County judge ruled that the city had to rezone the area based on an old area plan and the fact that the city’s action was inconsistent with other developments in the area. In 1999, the city had to pay legal fees after it approved relocation of a concrete-mixing plant at a rock quarry in Platte County, but a judge ruled in favor of a citizens group that argued that the city violated its own zoning requirements. In 1984, the city approved multifamily zoning behind the Cherrydale subdivision at 88th Street and North Oak but, bending to neighborhood concerns, indicated it would downzone the area to single family; 15 years later, neighbors discovered that the city council had done just the opposite, and they sued in a case that’s still pending. And in Jackson County, a developer bought land at Holmes and Red Bridge roads, anticipating rezoning, but when the council denied the rezoning request he promptly took the city to court; that case is also pending.)

But if city hall’s justification for approving Falcon Ridge and The Vineyards was weak, there were problems with the neighborhood association’s tactics as well.

The North Star neighborhood group might have made a professional presentation to the Plan Commission, but Cruz learned the hard way that emotional pleas from neighbors don’t get far with city officials.

Alex and Kathy Cruz questioned the development process in a February 15 letter to city planners. But in the same letter, they wrote, “If the developers think this is such a good idea then maybe they should put it in their neighborhood. Do they want an increased number of strangers roaming their neighborhood and around their children? A few months ago this area experienced a huge tragedy when Pamela Butler was kidnapped by a stranger … then murdered.” (The high-profile Butler case involved a 10-year-old girl from Kansas City, Kansas, who was killed last year after being taken from in front of her house by a stranger. Keith Nelson, accused in the killing, awaits trial in the Wyandotte County Jail.)

“This will open our neighborhood to all types of people,” the Cruzes complained. “Are the developers willing to take responsibility for the people they will be introducing to our neighborhood? No … if they cared about our area they would not be asking to have it rezoned.”

Then in a February 27 letter to City Manager Bob Collins, Kathy Cruz voiced concerns about increased traffic and alcohol sales at retail stores. Rezoning, she wrote, “will expose our neighborhood to strangers. In light of the (Butler) tragedy that just occurred in Independence, I feel that strip centers and convenience stores can attract the wrong people. We have a lot of children in our neighborhood, and we do not need pedophiles and criminals hanging around just down the street.”

And on April 7, Alex Cruz, this time using North Star letterhead, raised other fears in a letter to Patty Noll. Cruz noted that the Line Creek plan called for more schools than now exist in the area. Given the influx of new residents, Cruz asked, “If developers keep adding multifamily buildings in this area, can the city guarantee the school districts will not change their perimeters? We do not want our children to be bused across town and we do not want to be in the nonaccredited KCMO school district.”

Those types of arguments grated on elected officials.

“I question the motives of people who send us e-mails and letters about an increased number of strangers around kids — that somehow a strip center will draw pedophiles and pederasts to attack their children, that strangers will roam the neighborhood, that their children will be bused,” says Fourth District Councilman Jim Rowland. “They ask whether I am willing to take responsibility for another Pamela Butler incident. I am trying to get the connection between multifamily zoning and murderous kidnappers. If I vote to rezone the area, does that mean I am for the kidnappers? I don’t think so.

“Cruz is acting as a private citizen, but he and others in North Star are also public-safety officials,” Rowland adds. “And I think it’s irresponsible for law enforcement officials to propagate this kind of material.”

Cruz, Dickerson, and Ivey maintain that their neighborhood activism has no relation to their jobs as police officers.

And if nothing else, North Star has brought to light a fundamental weakness in the city’s ability to deal with developers. “What has surprised me in my time on the council is the lack of authority we actually have,” notes Fifth District Councilman Troy Nash. “We have, basically, an ‘administerial’ role. Most of the time we are serving as a rubber-stamping venue for development. We don’t have as much discretion as one would think.”

Had city officials been honest with him about how little the city could — or would — influence development, Cruz says, he probably would not have gotten involved with trying to change the course of events upstream from him. But now that he feels he’s been lied to, he says, “I have a lot more energy to force the issue. And we are in it for the long haul. We have a lot of contacts with other neighborhood groups and know now just how citizens can be defeated. They don’t have the time, the stamina, or the money to keep up with developers. Many fight, but just as many just drop out. But we aren’t going anywhere.”

To prove it, Cruz organized a protest in front of City Hall. At 1 p.m. on August 24, with the temperature simmering at around 100 degrees, about 35 neighborhood activists from 12 neighborhood associations stretching from KCI Airport to Richards-Gebaur Airport handed out leaflets and carried signs that read: “STOP RUBBER STAMPING — SAVE OUR HOMES,” “INFRASTRUCTURE BEFORE REVENUE,” “WE’RE WATCHING, WE VOTE,” and “STOP IRRESPONSIBLE DEVELOPMENT.”

The activists say their representation at City Hall is limited to irrelevant public hearings that do little or nothing to address neighborhood concerns.

“What they do,” says John Gladeau, of the Olde Hyde Park Historic District, “is tell us to get organized and fit us into the process, where we don’t really have any influence. The bureaucrats have been working with developers all along to make sure developments meet requirements.

“Then they tell us to choose one or two representatives to deal with the councilmembers and city bureaucrats. But they don’t want to deal with the calls, e-mails, and letters. That’s all. They have a person they can cajole, undermine, manipulate, and dismiss. If that person or persons won’t be used like that, they have someone they can call unreasonable and dismiss anyway.”

Cruz says around 200 neighborhood organizations are now linked through the weekly Neighborhood Hotline e-mail newsletter and that neighborhood activists are organizing a summit later this year. “We hope to … have the money, the lawyers, the time, and the people to make sure city hall is listening and will do something to put the neighbors into the development process,” he says.

The Falcon Ridge and Vineyards developments will go to the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee sometime this fall. There, Cruz says, he and his neighbors will make their presentation again. “But we will have to do something more. That’s just our bottom line.”

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