The saga at the northwest corner of National Avenue and Sunshine Street is set to continue as the Springfield City Council sent the contentious rezoning case back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for more consideration.
At its May 22 meeting, council members also voted 5-4 to deny a moratorium on development in parts of several Springfield neighborhoods, including University Heights. Eleven members of the public spoke in favor of putting a 210-day delay on any new developments.
Following the narrow vote against the moratorium, the City Council, at the request of the developer Be Kind and Merciful, LLC (BK&M), voted 5-3 to send the rezoning case back to the Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission, which recommended denial in April.
The rezoning application as it stands
The rezoning application is for approximately 2.6 acres of property located at 1739, 1745 and 1755 S. National Ave., 1138 E. University St. and 1111, 1119, 1133 and 1141 E. Sunshine St. from single-family residential district to general retail district, and establish a new conditional overlay district (COD).
A COD doesn’t require a site plan, and is “intended to allow a floating zone to be established as an overlay to a base zoning district.” It does limit some land uses, establish particular design standards and incorporates some conditions laid out by city planners.
Because it is not a planned development, Springfield council members, planning and zoning commissioners, and residents have expressed concerns about the uncertainty the COD presents.
On May 18, the City of Springfield announced that BK&M had sent a request that its rezoning case be remanded back to the Planning and Zoning Commission, in order to make changes to the COD. Those changes include limiting the height of a potential development, building a masonry wall and adding trees to the buffer yard between the development and surrounding homes.
There is still an active lawsuit against BK&M, filed by 12 University Heights residents in December in an attempt to enforce nearly century-old deed restrictions to maintain the neighborhood’s single-family residential zoning status. A bench trial has been set for Aug. 28, with Judge Michael Cordonnier presiding over the case.
Residents, Hosmer voice strong support to impose moratorium
In January, Councilmember Craig Hosmer proposed a 210-day administrative moratorium on development along large stretches of National Avenue and Sunshine Street, to give time for a corridor study to be conducted by the city.
Zone 2 Councilman Abe McGull expressed concern that imposing the moratorium would leave the city vulnerable to litigation. By 6-3 vote, the City Council sent the resolution to the council’s Plans and Policies Committee for study.
However, the committee never met on the topic, according to the Springfield Planning and Development Director Susan Istenes. At Hosmer’s request, the resolution was once again brought before the City Council on May 22.
In defense of the moratorium, Hosmer reminded his fellow council members that it has been implemented for other corridors in Springfield in the past, and argued that it should be favorable to the developers and the neighborhood.
Hosmer said that similar conflicts amongst council members in the past were a result of having a “development before there’s a plan.”
“We don’t know what that development is, the neighborhood doesn’t know what that development is,” Hosmer said. “That creates strife, that creates conflict, that creates uncertainty.”
Hosmer also said he doesn’t think that there’s any question that the deed restrictions will be upheld, and if the city moves forward with the rezoning case, it could cause University Heights to become “unstable.”
He also attributed, in part, the city’s high number of renters of almost 60 percent because of developments “tearing” into neighborhoods.
University Heights residents speak
Residents voiced their support of the moratorium for various reasons, citing the need for a better traffic study around the property BK&M is seeking to rezone, the outcome of the pending lawsuit and the adverse effects this rezoning, if not more thoughtfully considered during a moratorium and corridor study, could have on future development in Springfield.
“If you make decisions of this magnitude, in the state of flux, where the land use regulations and codes are not yet revised to agree with Forward SGF, which has already been approved, you’re leaving the city open to legal challenges from all sides,” University Heights resident Don Dunbar said in support of the moratorium.
Evelyn Mangan, a University Heights resident, said that the situation “begs” for a moratorium and that “the status quo is not working.”
Courtney Fletcher, a resident of University Heights and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against BK&M, said the only evidence of blight in the neighborhood is the lot of the home at the corner of National Avenue and Sunshine Street, because the developer didn’t have the lawn of the property mowed until it was cited by the city.
“Because someone came along and purchased seven lots there, we’re willing to allow him just to destroy the neighborhood?” Fletcher asked council members. “Why not put the moratorium in place, allow this lawsuit to work its way through the courts, see what happens with this. Because what is ultimately going to happen is, when these houses are destroyed and the court says nothing can be built there but a single-family residence, then you have a much bigger problem.”
In addition to Hosmer, Councilmembers Brandon Jensen, Monica Horton and Heather Hardinger voted in favor of the moratorium.
Quorum avoids moratorium, citing due process, fundamental disagreements
Despite the strong public support for the moratorium, Councilmembers McGull, Derek Lee, Callie Carroll, Matthew Simpson and Mayor Ken McClure shot it down, arguing that updating city codes to align with the Forward SGF comprehensive plan should take priority over a corridor study and that the guidance is “as good as it gets.”
McClure’s votes, in both the moratorium resolution and the remanding of the case back to the Planning and Zoning Commission, came amid calls from University Heights residents to recuse, because he has a family member who owns property in University Heights. McClure, however, did not recuse because he said he has no interest, “financial or otherwise” in the property.
Lee explained why he voted against the 210-day holding period.
“We can come together, but fundamentally there’s a disagreement that’s not going to work,” Lee said. “Because I don’t see where we delay this 210 days or two years, that we’re going to have a master plan in the city of Springfield where it recommends that we have single-family homes on primary arterial routes.”
McGull said the moratorium would circumvent due process, which he believes should be owed to the developer.
“The only way I would vote for this, let’s put a moratorium on all development in the city of Springfield,” he said. “Let’s do that. That’s fair, instead of just picking and choosing which ones we are going to say who’s the winner, who’s the loser. I can’t do that.”
City Council gives another shot to developer at Planning and Zoning
Following the denial of the moratorium, the rezoning case, which itself was slated for its first public hearing at a City Council meeting, was sent back to the Planning and Zoning Commission prior to, and ultimately preventing, additional public input on May 22.
Istenes told Hosmer that she and her staff had not received a new plan from the developer to incorporate any changes, but a written confirmation of BK&M’s intent to modify its plan. Amidst an inquiry into how much city staff had met with the developer, City Manager Jason Gage told Hosmer that the manager’s office had not met with BK&M regarding the development, which triggered laughter from some members of the audience.
Lilly Sweeney of the Neale and Newman law firm, who was there to represent BK&M, told council members she believed it was the developer’s intent to garner support at the commission with the proposed changes. Horton, who ultimately opposed remanding the case, didn’t think the listed changes would be enough to sway votes in the commission.
“I almost think it’s counterproductive to send it back to Planning and Zoning without a concrete site plan in the form of a planned development, which was originally recommended by staff as well as the Planning and Zoning Commission,” Horton said. “And so, I don’t really see these projected changes as changing the minds of Planning and Zoning in this case.”
Hosmer motioned to refer the resolution to remand the case back the Planning and Zoning Commission to the Plans and Policies Committee, where his proposed moratorium all but died.
At this, some in the audience erupted in laughter again, to which McClure banged the gavel to call for decorum. The motion never received a second, and was therefore never voted on.
“We talk about due process all the time,” Hosmer said. “This is not due process when the developer can tell us what to do and we send it back and back and back, until the Planning and Zoning Commission finally gets tired of dealing with this point, and passes it. This isn’t planning in the city of Springfield, this is developers telling us what we’re going to do. This deal was done before it ever came up to Council tonight.”
Lee and Carroll, who expressed concerns with remanding the case back to the commission, ultimately voted in favor of doing so in hopes that the developer would cooperate with neighbors and that the proposed changes would actually address some neighborhood concerns.
McGull, who voted to remand the rezoning application, warned that if something wasn’t eventually approved, something less “tasteful” could end up at the corner of National and Sunshine.
“Either we follow the process, or we may end up with something that we don’t want,” he said.
As of now, the next Planning and Zoning Commission meeting is scheduled for June 22.
Prior Springfield Daily Citizen coverage of the Heights
- Aug. 19, 2022: Pokin Around: Residents recoil at commercial plans that would tear down old homes on National
- Sept. 15, 2022: University Heights landmark home boarded up while residents were at meeting to discuss saving it
- Oct. 3, 2022: It’s gone. Most well-known home in University Heights demolished Tuesday morning
- Oct. 24, 2022: In a dark tent with armed security guards, University Heights residents rally to protect their neighborhood
- Nov. 8, 2022: Developers unveil new details about University Heights project at Sunshine and National
- Nov. 15, 2022: Pokin Around: Tension is part of University Heights story and shouldn’t be overlooked
- Nov. 22, 2022: University Heights prompts ask for more scrutiny of National and Sunshine
- Dec. 29, 2022: BK&M addresses 10 grievances against University Heights project
- March 31, 2023: Judge denies motion to dismiss University Heights residents’ lawsuit against BK&M
- April 1, 2023: City staff recommend zoning change approval, with conditions, for ‘The Heights’
- April 7, 2023: After contentious public hearing, city Planning & Zoning postpones vote on The Heights
- April 21, 2023: Springfield Planning and Zoning Commission votes against BK&M proposal
- April 28, 2023: BK&M releases new renderings for University Heights project
- May 18, 2023: BK&M asks Springfield City Council for zoning changes to University Heights development