By Gigi Wood

Last week, University Heights officials were reminded of an important consequence of a zoning decision for a proposed development.

The University Heights City Council on Dec. 14 approved the final reading of a zoning amendment that will allow a proposed development to move forward. It was approved 4-1, with Councilor Brennan McGrath voting against. The amendment allows multi-family housing to be built at 1300 Melrose Ave., the location of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

The church bought land for a new building for its growing congregation along Camp Cardinal Boulevard and is courting a land deal for its Melrose Avenue property with Jeff Maxwell, a developer who wants to construct a high-end condo project on the site.

The condo project has been the subject of council meetings, public forums, debate and controversy for more than two years in University Heights, pitting neighbors who are concerned about how the project will change the quaint 1,000-resident town against those who are concerned about increasing service costs and a desire to bolster the city’s tax revenue base.

The hiccup last week was a letter Councilor Pat Yeggy found when reviewing documentation on the issue before taking the final vote on the zoning amendment. Ms. Yeggy found a February 2009 letter addressed to the city from the church, which shed light on a forgotten element of the land deal. The last paragraph stated:

“The property on which the church’s rear parking lot exists is owned by the University of Iowa and the church leases this land for its use. At the time it was granted permission to pave the rear parking lot, Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church informally agreed to notify the University of Iowa of any proposed sale of the church. At the time of the Maxwell offer, the church inquired as to whether the University of Iowa had any interest in matching the Maxwell offer. Although the UI declined to do so, note that this decision predates the acquisition by the UI of the University Athletic Club property (next door) and the floods of 2008 (which created a greater need for land for the UI). If the Maxwell offer was terminated for any reason, Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church would expect that, prior to the property being placed on the market, further conversations would be conducted with the University of Iowa.”

That letter was sent before several councilors were elected to their posts, including Mike Haverkamp, Jim Lane and Ms. Yeggy, Mr. Haverkamp pointed out.

During the past two years, as flood-recovery plans for the UI have unfolded, it has become more apparent over time that the institution would have interest in the land, which is also within walking distance from UI Hospitals and Clinics. Many residents have voiced concern that if the Maxwell project was denied, the church would offer the land to the UI and the city would lose potential tax revenue because UI land is exempt from property taxes.

“If the church is on record as saying, ‘If this deal falls through, we’re going back to offer it to the university again before we talk to anybody else,’ that was certainly a consideration in how I voted in thinking about that land,” Mr. Haverkamp said. “If the church decides to leave, I want to see that (land) ending up on the city tax rolls and developed in a manner where the community has greater control. I think it’s (UI’s right of first refusal) a big deal, and it’s something that no one had mentioned for over a year.”

Approval of the zoning amendment was a contingency of the land purchase agreement between the church and Mr. Maxwell. The church has until 2013 to reach a vote of its membership regarding whether or not to sell the property, Mr. Haverkamp said.

“What I voted for was a zoning change and a zoning change only,” Mr. Haverkamp said. “And it’s a zoning change that would apply to any developer who would end up with that parcel, because it is certainly a long ways from being a certainty that the church will move. And if the church decides to stay then all this has been for naught.”

The council will now wait to hear from Mr. Maxwell or the church on progress on the deal. The next public step is for Mr. Maxwell to present a planned unit development plan that the city would need to approve. That plan will address numerous project specifications and requirements, from building dimensions to nuisance controls.

In November, the council agreed to delay its final zoning amendment vote in order to ask the church if it would consider extending its deal with Maxwell. The extension was a request by residents who wanted the council to vote on the issue as a fully elected unit.

One concern of many residents is the council seat held by Mr. Lane. He was appointed to the council to fill a vacancy left by former Councilor Amy Moore, who moved away from the area this past summer. A special election will take place in January for the seat.

Many residents have said voting for the development should be done by councilors who are elected and that zoning and other project issues should wait until after the special election. Those in favor of the project were unsure if waiting would sour the deal between the developer and the church.

“We sent a letter to the session and the session considered it,” Mr. Haverkamp said of the church’s leadership group.

The church’s attorney, Dell Richard, sent a response letter to the city stating, “At present, Mr. Maxwell must either satisfy or waive his contingencies by Dec. 22, 2010. After that date, either the church or Mr. Maxwell could terminate the contract, after notice.”

The letter also stated that because the request was not from Mr. Maxwell, the church believed any conversations with the city about the project would be ineffective and a “potential breach of its covenants of good faith with Mr. Maxwell.”

Steve Ballard, University Heights’ attorney, then sent a letter to Mr. Maxwell’s attorney, Thomas Gelman, asking if the developer was interested in requesting an extension.

Mr. Gelman responded, “With the required public hearings now closed there would appear to be no part of this re-zoning process left except for the council to conclude its already extensive deliberations and vote. Mr. Maxwell believes it is reasonable and appropriate for the council, at its next meeting, to complete those deliberations in a thoughtful and mutually respectful manner and then proceed with voting.”

That ended any hope councilors had of delaying the vote until after the special election. While Mr. McGrath had often been the lone dissenting vote on the issue, a few councilors had in recent months decided that delaying the final zoning vote would help mend fences amongst neighbors.

Two candidates are vying for the open seat in the Jan. 11 election, Mr. Lane, who supports the Maxwell development, and Rosanne Hopson, who is against it.  CBJ

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