"Were they lying to us then -- or now?"

COLUMBIA, Mo 8/16/14 (Beat Byte) -- Contrary to public statements from Columbia City Council members and city officials, the Opus Development Group does not have the "right" to build a downtown student apartment without special approval from the City Council that citizen petitions have twice quashed.   

What's more, downtown Columbia does have infrastructure shortages serious enough for city staff to deny multiple large projects.   

The surprising admissions appear in a June 24 email from Columbia city manager Mike Matthes to Council members trying to answer a question from 4th Ward resident Jean Blackwood.  Opus Group attorneys included the email in a court filing that challenges a temporary restraining order issued against the student apartment last week.  

Oddly enough, Matthes' email contradicts a sworn statement in an affidavit from Opus exec Joseph Downs that accompanies the filing:   "A development agreement is not required for a developer to proceed with a project."   

"We do have infrastructure shortages downtown and staff has been rejecting any project which needs an increased amount of electricity for nearly a year now," Matthes wrote.  "However, our system of governance allows property owners to appeal to the City Council for permission to build after receiving a rejection from staff.  When a builder makes a compelling case, Council is allowed to approve (and has done so) development projects.  Collegiate Housing Partners, Opus and The Lofts are examples of projects that were rejected by staff and later, approved by Council."

Matthes claims his staff has also rejected the American Campus Communities 700-unit student apartment planned for the area around Providence and Stewart Roads.    Council approval for that project is pending. 

To approve a development after staff rejects it, Council demands developers "pay for the infrastructure they need plus pay for system improvements," Matthes explained, citing "off-site water and sewer lines, and larger off-site infrastructure issues (e.g. trunk line sewers)."   The demands appear in "development agreements" that grant Council approval after the developer meets various terms and conditions. 

The city manager's comments contradict a City Hall narrative First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick introduced at a spring press conference:   that Opus has "the right to build" without Council -- and therefore, public -- approval, making the petitions moot.   Mayor Bob McDavid has repeated the line several times, most recently to KFRU radio host David Lile

The narrative prompted Blackwood to email 4th Ward Councilman Ian Thomas, who forwarded her questions to Matthes.

"I'm confused.  You and others are telling us that because Opus' development conforms to current zoning laws, the city must approve a building permit," Blackwood wrote.   "Yet only a few months ago, Mr. Matthes and our Mayor said that because of infrastructure inadequacy, the downtown area would be closed to all further development....Did that not mean they felt they had the power to deny building permits?" 

Opus' knowledge of the two month-old email suggests the company has gone ahead with land purchase, demolition, and construction plans knowing City Council approval was on hold pending the outcome of the petitions.     

The email could harm any case either city officials or Opus attorneys make claiming they believe the petitions are irrelevant or that Council approval was not required.  

"Were they lying to us then -- or now?" Blackwood asked Thomas, prompting Matthes' revelations.