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COLUMBIA - The Columbia City Council rolled out an overhaul of city development and housing rules Monday.

The city released a 400-page document outlining the new unified development code, a comprehensive re-write of Columbia's zoning rules. Last month, the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission recommended the city council adopt the ordinance that includes about 80 amendments to the city's unified development code.

The public was allowed to address the lawmakers at the city council meeting Monday night, and only two people stepped up to the podium to voice concerns. Jim Meyer, President of the Board of Realtors, said the low turnout is not surprising. 

"It would be very difficult for someone to read and understand the 400-page draft in time to stand up and speak at the city council hearing," Meyer said. "I suspect that's why very few people stood up to speak at the city council meeting."

Meyer expressed this and other concerns in a letter to Mayor Brian Treece on Feb. 17. 

The letter read, "The City Council Hearing Draft of the UDC was released at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, February 15th, with written comments to be submitted to the City Clerk by noon the same day - one hour later."

He said the main problem is the city has not created a sufficient process for community members to comment. In response to the Board of Realtors' letter, Treece responded with a letter of his own. In the response letter, Treece said this is only one of four public hearings about the new rules and there are other opportunities to address the code and council.

"Contrary to your letter, there is unlimited opportunity for submission of written comments... Rest assured all written comments submitted to me or the Council will be considered up until the final vote on March 20," Treece said.

The letter went on to say, "The proposed unified development code is the product of months and years of formal and informal discussion beginning with the City's team of expert consultants followed by facilitate meetings, dialogue, and community engagement. The Planning and Zoning Commission held eight meetings at which public comment was received."

Pat Zenner, the city's development services manager, agreed with the mayor. He said the city began looking into a unified development code in 2006 and since then, the city has tried to include public comment whenever it was feasible. He said the only reason the city limited public comment in its hearing guidelines was to ensure all interested parties the chance to comment.

Meyer is not satisfied with the city's responses. He said one of his lingering concerns is the guidelines limit residents to one turn to address the city council for all four public sessions. Meyer said the trouble with this rule is it forces residents to wait until the very end to voice concerns so they don't blow their only opportunity too early. The Board of Realtors said the council can right the process if it loosens up the rules for public participation.

"What I'm advocating for is that the mayor and the city council give every interested citizen who wants to comment a chance to comment on the final version, and as much as they want," Meyer said. "This is going to burden the property rights of every single landowner and tenant in the city, and it's not something that should be rushed."

The council will hold another hearing Saturday at 9 a.m. followed by two regularly scheduled city council meetings in March.

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