Oakville Controversy Sparks Evaluation of Notification System

Article excerpt

At a time when social media flash news across the globe in a matter of seconds, it appears that more than a year passed before most Oakville residents discovered St. Louis County had approved the construction of a senior citizen residential housing facility in their community.

Never mind that the rest of the world communicates instantaneously counties and municipalities remain bound to 20th- century methods to inform the public of zoning issues with the potential to change the character of neighborhoods and business districts.

"That is a weakness of our system," acknowledges St. Louis County Planning Director Glenn Powers.

St. Louis County in early 2012 advised 166 Oakville residents and businesses via postcard of a public hearing to weigh the merits of the senior living complex Ohio-based National Church Residences proposed to build on Telegraph Road.

The county also placed a notice in the St. Louis Countian a legal newspaper which state Rep. Marcia Haefner, R-Oakville, correctly notes "is not even sold in the community" and a 3-by-3- foot sign at the proposed building site.

The public hearing agenda was also published on the county website.

Oakville residents nonetheless say they learned of the project only when construction began in May.

More than a year after the County Planning Commission and County Council signed off on the proposal, residents are now demanding the county rescind its approval.

Their grievances range from accusations that the building is too large for the lot to the proximity of the 45-unit facility to a neighboring preschool. They are also concerned about traffic and fear that National Church Residences the nation's largest operator of low-income senior housing won't honor its commitment to limit residency to tenants 62 or older.

But the bulk of the outrage is directed at what critics contend is the county's failure to provide them with advance notice of the public hearings for the project.

"This was not due transparency in government, and the people at the absolute minimum expect transparency from government," Haefner said.

Patricia Salkin, dean of the Touro Law Center in Central Islip, N.Y., defends the policy, noting that counties are legally obligated to use a notification system used by every state in the union.

"Until a court says the statute can be interpreted to use social media or a state legislature says it's OK to use social media, it will invalidate" alternatives to notifying constituents by means other than postcards, letters, legal advertisements and signage, Salkin said.

The Oakville situation may spark at least one state to address the notification process Missouri.

Haefner said she hopes to introduce options to the current process during the 2014 Missouri legislative session.

The outcry has also forced St. Louis County to evaluate its means of communicating important information to the public methods that have been in place since Powers began working in the planning department 30 years ago. …