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City Beat: Council considers simplifying land disturbance permits

Councilmember Hosmer seeks transparency in input process

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If all goes as planned, Springfield may become the first city in Missouri to have a qualified local program for land disturbance permits, the Springfield City Council learned at its July 12 meeting.

Ron Petering, the city’s assistant director of environmental services, said the designation would allow contractors to avoid what they see as a duplication of efforts between city and state land disturbance permits. With the local program in place, a city permit alone would eliminate the requirement for a state permit.

A land disturbance permit is necessary for all sites excavating an acre or more of land, or for smaller sites that are part of a larger development project, according to the city’s website. Fees range from $546 for sites of 1-5 acres to $728 for sites over 20 acres.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources requires its own land disturbance permits that range from $500 for 1-5 acres to $5,000 for over 500 acres disturbed, according to its website. Petering informed council of the efforts to pursue the qualified local program designation in his introduction of a bill that would eliminate the requirement for a security deposit by contractors when applying for a land disturbance permit.

The security requirement is replaced in the proposed bill by an alternative security mechanism similar to the city’s handling of other property-related nuisances, Petering said. The city can address erosion issues as a public nuisance and then take abatement action and seek reimbursement for expenses incurred.

Petering told council enforcement occurs when management practices at a construction site allow mud to get on streets or tracked into streams, or at the end of construction when a site is ready to open but doesn’t have its ground cover restored yet. Contractors would have to correct the problem before being allowed to move forward.

Who advised city officials?
Councilperson Craig Hosmer raised concern about the origin of the measure to eliminate the security deposit. He asked Petering if the change was recommended and initiated by staff or by an outside entity. Petering replied that the recommendation was an internal one, but added, “The review was probably based on feedback from outside.”

Petering said that advice came from a technical committee that included representatives from local design firms, the Springfield Contractors Association and the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Growth & Development Advisory Council.

Hosmer took issue with the fact that the committee is part of the chamber, an organization that advocates for the interests of business.

“And they’re making the recommendation that we change the security things to make it easier for businesses to do their projects,” he said.

Hosmer’s concern was that only commercial stakeholders had the ear of city officials.

“My frustration at least is that sometimes we only go to groups that are the development groups,” he said. “We don’t go to neighborhood groups, we don’t go to environmental groups, we don’t get a good cross section of the community, and I think that’s fundamentally unfair to this community to not get the good broad section of what our public policy is going to be.”

Reached after the meeting, chamber President Matt Morrow expressed surprise that the chamber’s advisory council came under criticism from Hosmer. According to Morrow, the group is a sounding board that serves a useful advisory function.

When the city staff has policies they’re considering, the Growth & Development Advisory Council can tell them if those policies will impact businesses in any unanticipated ways.

“In many cases, there is input that I think more often than not leads to win-win outcomes and process improvements,” Morrow said. “I’ve never heard anyone on City Council suggest that city staff should avoid engaging with people who are affected by the policies they’re considering. My experience is they do engage with everybody who might plausibly be affected.”

Hosmer said that merely by looking at the written bill, he would not have known that the chamber’s council had been involved in the process. When asked if he would want to receive a record of public input, Hosmer said, “If there’s an interest group that’s gotten first-hand knowledge, then yes.”

Springfield City Manager Jason Gage asked if Hosmer would want to see that information for every item put in front of the council for which there is public engagement.

“If there’s a change in public policy that’s recommended and staff has gotten input and made changes at the recommendation of a different entity, then yes, I think we should see that,” Hosmer said, adding this should be the case for all council action, not just that related to the building community.

Councilmember Richard Ollis disagreed with Hosmer.

“I think we’re going to slow this thing down to an absolute crawl, and frankly, I’ll just tell you we have been criticized as a community for being difficult to deal with,” Ollis said. “I think this is a step in the right direction.”

The measure is scheduled for a vote at the July 26 meeting.

Other action items

  • Council was asked to authorize an agreement with Ozark Greenways Inc. to grant a perpetual conservation easement of city-owned property bordering portions of Galloway Creek. The arrangement is part of a grant request by The James River Basin Partnership. The grant program is part of the federal Clean Water Act. Brent Stock, executive director of The James River Basin Partnership, said the agreement would allow the partnership to contract with the local Watershed Conservation Corps, part of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, to improve the riparian corridor through plantings and removal of invasive species while adding interpretive signage. The James River Basin Partnership is pursuing the easement, which would be granted to Ozark Greenways.

Stock said the improvements would not prohibit any activities currently planned in the area, like the Lone Pine Bike Park or other trail systems.

Action will be taken at the July 26 meeting.

  • Katie Towns, acting director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, updated council on the current surge in COVID-19 – one that has resulted in the cancellation of the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival slated for August. Towns reported that the 226 people hospitalized on the day of the meeting was the highest since the peak of the pandemic, when 230 were hospitalized. Ventilator use is also at an all-time high. Since the meeting, per July 15 numbers on the Greene County COVID-19 dashboard, Springfield hospitals matched the 230 peak. “We’re seeing that most of the people who end up in the hospital here are unvaccinated,” Towns said.
  • Council approved an appropriation of $80,000 to fund a study of the North 13 corridor. That amount is a third of the cost of the joint agreement with the Ozarks Transportation Organization, which will serve as the lead, and Greene County. The study will seek to improve safety and congestion around Interstate 44 and Highway 13/Kansas Expressway.
  • Council approved an ordinance to accept $40,276,290 in Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, established by the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in March. According to Assistant Director of Finance Jody Vernon, the funds can be used to respond to the public health emergency, provide premium pay to essential workers, support government services and make investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure. Funds must be spent by the end of 2026.

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