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Planning Commission struggles with rare downzoning request

Tuesday, March 1, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission, unsatisfied with a requested downzoning in Montopolis, voted Feb. 22 to postpone the case so that the applicant could add more units – including affordable units – to its proposal.

The applicant, Alpha Builders Group, plans to build up to 10 units at 2404 Thrasher Lane and seeks to add a mixed-use designation (MU) to the General Commercial Services (CS) zoning currently on the site. A conditional overlay would limit the site to 10 units – fewer than would otherwise be allowed with CS-MU zoning. 

The downzoning, despite meaning lower density, faced opposition from two longtime neighborhood activists, Fred McGhee and Susana Almanza. McGhee, who lives next door, protested the rezoning largely on the grounds that the Montopolis Community Development Corporation – an organization of which McGhee is president – should develop the property.

“We have a proposal that is higher and better than the proposal you just heard,” McGhee said, explaining that his plan would provide 100 percent affordable housing. Neither McGhee nor the Montopolis CDC has rights to develop the property.

Micah King, representative for the applicant, impugned McGhee’s motives. “This property has never been developed, and that’s been by design,” King said. “That’s been by design of Dr. Fred McGhee, who wants to develop this property for himself.”

King pointed out that the valid petition on the property, which will force a supermajority vote at City Council, is only composed of two neighbors – and one of them is McGhee. “And by the way, his development company has never developed anything,” King said. 

McGhee said King had been “contemptuous” of neighbors and did not meet with them to discuss the rezoning. King refuted the claim, saying in addition to personally calling McGhee and Almanza, he met with the neighborhood contact team twice. “It’s a false accusation, and I’m tired of these accusations being made,” King said. 

Commissioners ignored the squabble between McGhee and King, and instead asked why the applicant wanted to downzone the property and not provide any affordable housing. 

“I see a lot of opportunity to help the area with more affordability by bringing more homes and even providing a certain percentage of affordable housing,” Commissioner James Shieh said. “Have you looked into that?”

King said that affordable homes don’t pencil with only 10 units, and that the builder does not have the capacity to do a bigger project with affordable homes. The smaller project might also appeal more to neighbors: “I think the neighbors have said they don’t want more density,” he said. 

Shieh motioned to postpone the case to March 8 so the applicant could propose a denser project with affordable units. “If the applicant knows that we’d like to consider (affordable units), then maybe this is something they could go back to the table and think about,” Shieh said. The commission voted 7-5-1 in favor of the postponement. 

Those against the motion doubted things could change in just two weeks. “It doesn’t sound like the applicants are prepared to put together an affordable housing proposal at this point,” Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said. “So I would rather see this come back either much later or denied at this time.”

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