After two years of winding, at-times bitter debate, a controversial effort to get some new lighted tennis courts and a practice/JV football field at Dreher High School is going to have to wait just a bit longer before it once again goes before the city's planning board.
The City of Columbia Planning Commission on Sept. 5 was slated to consider a request from Richland School District One to make a zoning amendment for Dreher High School's property at 3319 Millwood Ave. that would make way for Dreher to construct the long bandied-about sports facilities. However, late on the afternoon of Sept. 4, the district withdrew the matter from the planning board's agenda.
Columbia City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann says the Dreher matter will likely now appear on the Planning Commission's October agenda, then on a Columbia City Council agenda in November
The Planning Commission has, on three separate occasions, recommended denial for Dreher to build proposed new sports facilities. City Council would have the ultimate say in whether Dreher gets its requested zoning amendment.
Rickenmann told Free Times it is his understanding that the district simply wasn't 100 percent ready to move forward with the zoning request with the planning board this month. At least one portion of the delay was likely an effort to give city zoning staff more time to consider the issue. Under the "Staff Recommendation" tab in the packet that was to have gone before the planning board on Sept. 5, there is the following notation: "Staff makes no recommendation at this time. The timing of the final application materials did not permit adequate time to review and evaluate the proposal."
Dreher, Richland One and the high school's booster club have been fighting for two years to get city approval for the construction of new tennis courts and a practice field on the school's property. They have been met with stiff resistance from some residents of nearby neighborhoods like Heathwood and Melrose Heights.
Some neighbors say the would-be sports facilities at Dreher would negatively impact their quality of life, creating unwanted noise, traffic and light.
The back-and-forth between supporters of the project and the opposing neighbors seemed to reach a crescendo in April, when city officials, school district officials, and leaders from the Heathwood, Melrose Heights and Shandon neighborhoods had a daylong mediation session with Judge W. Thomas Cooper.
The mediated agreement that came out of that meeting called for construction of five lighted tennis courts and a lighted "multi-purpose practice field."
The agreement expressly stated that Dreher would not play varsity football games at the new field. The deal also included that lights at the field and tennis courts must be cut off by 9 p.m.
The practice field would not be allowed to have a public address speaker system, any speakers on its scoreboard or a "battery megaphone." The brokered deal also said no pep bands will be allowed.
Despite the mediation, some neighbors remained skeptical. Heathwood resident and former Columbia City Council member Hamilton Osborne Jr. was among those who were concerned, noting in April that, while leaders from the Historic Heathwood Neighborhood Association were present for the mediation and signed the document listing the project terms that came out of that mediation, that didn't necessarily represent the feelings of everyone in the neighborhood. He also pointed out that the planning commission has three times recommended denial for the Dreher project.
Rickenmann told Free Times the removal of the Dreher issue from the Sept. 5 Planning Commission agenda won't slow down the overall movement of the issue.
"It doesn't change the schedule of progress," Rickenmann says. "Whether they are [on the Planning Commission agenda] for September or October, they still come to [City Council] in November. So, there was no reason to rush it onto the [Planning Commission] agenda."
Michael Burkett is a Columbia attorney and former Dreher Booster Club president who has been a supporter of the sports facilities project. He is hopeful a deal will finally get done this fall.
"I think both parties have demonstrated that we are coming in good faith to do this," Burkett says.