The widely unpopular Opus student housing development in Downtown Columbia has ruffled myriad feathers for myriad reasons. The City bureaucracy headed by City Manager Mike Matthes and his assistant Tony St. Romaine first claimed that Downtown infrastructure could not handle one more toilet. They used this infrastructure emergency in an effort to justify a hurried TIF corporate welfare plan. Once the TIF plan was defeated, the City then flip-flopped and approved hundreds of new toilets in the form of both large student housing projects and upscale urban flats for the well-paid young professional. Despite the shenanigans on the part of city leaders and bureaucrats, experts agree that Downtown electric and sewer infrastructure is already maxed out.
Opponents of Downtown development are especially rankled at the notion of student housing. They claim that the University will fail to fill the beds in years to come and the buildings will become a ghetto, despite the fact that they are located within two blocks of the Mizzou campus and only six or seven blocks from the other two campuses. They argue that these developments fly in the face of local central planning schemes laid out in the past. They argue that citizens simply don’t want student housing in Downtown Columbia. They argue that the tall buildings will be unsightly. They argue that there was not enough public input during the approval process. They argue that downtown will be overrun with students and lose its wider appeal.
While any or all of their complaints may be true, there stands one other complaint against downtown development that seems to hold water — pun intended. The fact is our city’s sewer and stormwater infrastructure is already overburdened. It seems that real damages have resulted from the City’s failure to follow precedent and provide these basic services. At least this is the only argument that might pass muster for someone who believes in the sanctity of Natural Rights and the Common Law. Remember, liability for damage one does to an adjacent property is nothing new and was a feature of the Common Law in the United Kingdom and the early United States.
Several homeowners in the First Ward with homes in the Flat Branch Watershed have found themselves on the receiving end of some rather nasty consequences of overdevelopment. When it rains more than an inch, lawns and gardens are washed away by stormwater overflows that rush like rivers across private property. Many homeowners enjoy basements flooded by both stormwater and raw sewage. Homeowners have even reported cleaning toilet paper from their basement floors after a hard rain. Property values must suffer.
During heavy rainfall sewers also overflow manholes and wastewater escapes into the Flat Branch Watershed and eventually into the surrounding ecosystem, spreading poison far and wide. Water, we must remember, is a transient resource. When water is poisoned at point A, the poison eventually travels to point B. In almost every case, one simply cannot poison one’s own groundwater without poisoning one’s neighbor’s groundwater. When sewage overflows into the Flat Branch Watershed, everyone in the area is a victim.
It is time for First Ward homeowners whose private property has been harmed by the City’s mismanagement of funds and failure to provide adequate infrastructure to band together and file a lawsuit naming the City and its leaders as defendants liable for damages. Perhaps Josh Oxenhandler, a local attorney who has represented those opposed to student housing, would take the case for free or on a contingency. Considering the wider harm caused by sewage overflow into the local watershed, perhaps a wider cross section of local citizens might have standing as plaintiffs.
One thing is for sure, citizens pleading with the City to do something reasonable does not work. Petitioners standing in line to sign names on a sheet of paper is futile. The only remedy is a lawsuit.
When Opus threatened a lawsuit, the City snapped into compliance with the Opus agreement. Perhaps they were simply using the lawsuit as an excuse to do what they had planned all along. It will be interesting to see if the City responds in the same way to a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed by citizens.