Last edited 12:08 p.m., Oct. 26, 2022
It was standing room only for some University Heights neighbors who attended the public meeting hosted by BK&M LLC Monday night in a tent at the corner of Sunshine Street and National Avenue.
At issue is a rezoning to general retail from single-family residential with a conditional use permit. BK&M owns or is in the process of acquiring eight properties at the northwest corner of the busy intersection. One has been razed, and the developers intend to remove and relocate the other seven, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
Some 120 people were present, but Ralph Duda and Anthony Tolliver, co-founders of BK&M who hosted the first public meeting Aug. 18, were not among them. Prior to the meeting, Duda told SBJ he did not plan to attend the meeting on the advice of legal counsel. Two armed guards hired by BK&M were posted at the meeting site. Duda told SBJ he was providing security because of the heightened emotions experienced at the first meeting.
As attorney Bryan D. Fisher of Neale & Newman LLP began his welcoming remarks, one neighbor rose to call a point of order. Mark Fletcher asked that the meeting be adjourned because the setting did not meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act to accommodate people with disabilities.
The temporary floor composed of interlocking deck tiles was uneven on the ground that recently was cleared of a 1930s-era Colonial house by BK&M. There were 85 folding chairs to accommodate attendees, and while the interior was dry, rain beat down on the roof of the tent making it hard for some attendees to hear.
“Look at this floor. There’s no bathroom. This is abhorrent,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher read from an email he had received from Susan Istenes, Springfield’s director of Planning and Development, on Oct. 24. After the meeting, he forwarded the email to SBJ.
In the email, Istenes clarified city code required the meeting to be held on the property involved in the application or in the immediate vicinity, and that BK&M was responsible for any required ADA accommodations. Istenes verified the authenticity of the email in response to an inquiry from SBJ.
“The applicant initially chose the now vacant land site for the meeting, but later informed staff that the meeting was to be held at the DoubleTree Hotel … which is approximately 5 miles from the project site and far from the ‘immediate vicinity’ as required by code,” Istenes wrote in the email.
She wrote that city staff “suggested several alternative locations” more conducive to addressing neighborhood concerns and to meeting requirements, but the developer chose to proceed in the vacant lot as originally planned.
“I move that this meeting be adjourned,” Fletcher called from the audience.
But Fisher said the meeting would not include motions from the crowd and that it wasn’t being conducted under Robert’s Rules of Order. Rather, his role was to collect concerns of residents and include them in a report to the city and the developers.
But Fletcher was adamant that older and disabled residents should have been able to attend, and he urged members of the audience to file formal complaints about the meeting conditions.
“If you continue on in violation of the law, it will be redressed,” Fletcher said.
Two dozen people raised concerns at the meeting, with all speakers speaking in strong opposition to the rezoning plan and no one voicing support for the project. Around the halfway point of the meeting, the electricity failed, making the interior of the tent dark with the approaching sunset, and speakers had to shout to be heard against the hard rain on the tent roof.
Many of the speakers, as well as individuals in the crowd, requested information on the specific plan for the property. Fisher declined to provide one.
“The thing that’s important for you to know … is a site plan is not binding on a zoning request,” he said.
He said his client decided not to provide a site plan, rather than presenting attendees with one that might be changed. The conditional use district would restrict certain purposes, however including gas stations, bars and fast-food restaurants, scenarios posited by neighborhood speakers.
“When a person buys property, they have the right to do with that property what they want to do,” Fisher said, noting what does bind an owner is a conditional overlay district.
He said University Heights residents would be invited to a meeting in early November to hear plans and view renderings.
Neighbors who spoke were concerned about traffic, including cars rerouting through the neighborhood to reach the new businesses. They also raised concerns about stormwater runoff, noise and the fear that the character of the neighborhood would be permanently changed.
Nancy Cooper spoke of the closeness of neighbors.
“Six years ago, my husband was murdered in my home, and no one expected me to stay there,” she said. “This neighborhood rallied around me. People I didn’t even know sent me food. Somebody stopped by with bread one day.”
Cooper said her happy memories in the neighborhood were strong enough to counterbalance the tragedy.
“No one that I know wants this to be zoned commercial,” she said.
Rodney Dixon agreed.
“Here’s what I know: When you start breaking down a neighborhood piece by piece, it falls apart,” he said.
Rick Welker said the developers should have been present at the meeting.
“When the buck stops here, the buck ought to be here to stop it,” he said. “They feel like their attorney can come and represent them. It shows you what kind of men they are. Forgive me, ladies, but they don’t have the balls.”
Donald Dunbar showed up in a bulletproof vest to point out what he felt was the ridiculousness of the developers hiring security for the meeting. He expressed skepticism that the developers would purchase a home for $450,000 and then tear it down, leaving a vacant lot that is still zoned single-family residential.
Dunbar predicted the developers would lose their investment when the zoning designation remains the same.
“Personally, I’d like to see that happen,” he said.
Fletcher, who had opened with his objection to the meeting, spoke again later, and he was angry.
“It burns me up to see the disrespect that is being heaped upon our neighborhood,” he said.
The meeting site, which he called “vile” and “disgusting,” was part of his objection, since people with disabilities, like his own daughter with multiple sclerosis, could not attend.
“It’s the equivalent of putting up a sign that says, ‘No Blacks allowed.’ ‘No Jews,’” he said.
He also mentioned the deed restrictions – that is, conditions applying to the purchase – on the property BK&M bought. These do not allow anything to be erected on the properties except private residences of brick, stone or stucco with a setback of 35 feet. Fletcher is among a group of neighborhood residents seeking legal recourse from BK&M and Guaranty Bank, which loaned money to them, based on their ignoring deed restrictions.
“They think they can bully their way forward,” he said. “They’re wrong. It is time to take a stand for our neighborhood and stop this.”
When contacted today for his reaction to the meeting, Duda offered no comment.
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