900 people, get off my lawn
January 18, 2013 7:19 AM   Subscribe

I live in a Midwestern college town, and we are homeowners fairly close to the university campus. A large chunk of land about a block from our house has been sold to a developer. The developer plans to turn it into student housing, provided they can get the required zoning changes. I'm looking for people who've had similar experiences dealing with local governments on zoning issues, and what I, along with my neighborhood organization, can do to cope in the months to come.

The facts:
1. My street is primarily owner-occupied, although we are surrounded by streets that have a significant number of rental houses. The other side of the proposed development features owner-occupied properties.
2. The planned development is not high-density housing. Rather it's townhomes and small four-plexes, none of them greater than two stories. However, it's still about 900 new people living within a mile of our house. (We call this the best worst-case scenario)
3. The proposed development is rent-by-room, so each bedroom will have an individual lease. This doesn't really make it flexible for non-undergraduates to live there. Plus, it's really, really expensive and fancy. The developer assures me "anyone can live there!" to which I say "hahahahahaha forever!"
3a. The property has to be rezoned to medium density in order for the development to go forward as planned.

The concerns:
1. Since we live in between the proposed development and the bars, we're very concerned about increased late-night foot traffic, and the accompanying noise, trash, vandalism and peeing. Also vehicle traffic since we already have a lot of people that use our street as a speedy shortcut (pizza delivery vehicles driving 45 mph down my street, I'm looking at you).
2. Other neighbors are concerned about flooding in their neighborhood being exacerbated by the additional development. I'm concerned about the development having a huge impact on a tiny sliver of forested area that runs through the land.
3. The development will push homeowners out of the neighborhood, and after our property values plummet and we can't sell our houses, we'll just start renting them out like the rest of our neighborhood.
4. If student enrollment slows or falls off, we will be left with a huge, student-focused housing development that can't find tenants.
4a. Yes, this town is growing and it does need more housing. But it is my belief (backed up with limited research) that it doesn't really need that much more student housing (i.e. the university is already building more student housing as we speak). Obviously the developer stands to make a lot more money from the higher density housing versus low density reasonably priced housing (I doubt anyone would by a McMansion in my neighborhood, also McMansions are sooo 2005).

The actions:
1. We're already forming a neighborhood action association and meeting with a city planner.
2. On our street, we're discussing closing off the end adjacent to the development, or forcing the city/developer to pay for speed bump installation (this would be annoying, but I think I would glean a sick joy from hearing the pizza delivery guys bottom out on my street for the first few months.)
3. Installing razor wire in my yard. (I kid! I kid! Sort of.)

What else can be done? As my significant other put it, "the Council is going to vote how the City Planner tells them to vote, and I'm guessing the developer has already had significant discussions with the City Planner." So....Should I look up a whole bunch of demographic information and argue the detriment of this development to the neighborhood and the city? Do I start calling around to property managers to obtain my own data to refute the developer's stance that "there are no housing vacancies in this town"? Do I start a blog to rage against The Man? Or is doing a bunch of research just a huge waste of my time?

Assuming the developer does get rezoning and the project comes to fruition, what types of demands should we make upon the developer in order to mitigate the impacts as much as possible? (Some thoughts are increased police patrols in the neighborhood, speed bumps/dead end our street as mentioned above, private security supplied by the development on the weekends, requiring the developer to have some sort of neighborhood improvement/neighborhood cleanliness initiative, a shuttle bus from the development to campus/bars since public transit currently does not go past a large portion of the development, etc.) What questions should we be asking of the city, and what demands can we make?

How can I be more zen about this entire process? (I am most definitely NOT ZEN at the moment.)

tl;dr: get off my lawn

(p.s. cute, cozy, and recently renovated house with amazing patio and back yard for sale, message me for more info. I kid! I kid! Sort of.)
posted by sararah to Law & Government (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you and the neighbors really feel that this development will become a problem, then go to the zoning hearings and fight it.

You can petition your town to provide speed bumps in your neighborhood. We did this in ours for Traffic Calming (Hello, alternative to Peachtree!) and it's worked beautifully.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:31 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you're right to be concerned. Any lawyers among your neighbors with a background in municipal litigation? Your best bet may be to tie this up in court and make it expensive for the municipality. You will also need data, which you could collect yourself but you don't do this professionally, so you're better off partnering with someone who has been through this and knows what demographic, real estate data, etc. will be valuable and where to find it.

So if you're reading between the lines, you're going to have start fundraising, and that means mobilizing your neighbors, the media, etc. RIGHT NOW.

The zen part I can't help with, but the upside of all this is you will get to know your neighbors better, you'll make some new friends, and even if you don't get everything you want, you'll make your neighborhood a better place to live than it would have been otherwise. Good luck!
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:35 AM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: #2 is your best arguing point to take to the city, with a modified version of #1. You should assert that your neighborhood get adequate enforcement for noise and litter problems, and document and call them into the city every time you notice a problem. You should definitely make sure the developer goes by the book in terms of pollution, disposal, and environmental impact.

#3 really is just "get off my lawn", in so many words. You are not guaranteed that your home will appreciate in value and you are not guaranteed that the demographics and feel of the neighborhood you bought into remain exactly the same for the duration of the time you own. Your university is probably a net positive in your town in terms of adding jobs and intellectual and cultural value; it's not just gross loud undergrads. This is why people buy into neighborhoods with HOAs if you want that kind of control.

#4 is not a valid point unless you have the real numbers. It sounds like you're assuming university housing is enough, but you need to know current and projected enrollment and how much affordable housing there currently is for students within X miles of campus. You can try to get accurate numbers by looking at the university website and looking up rentals on the web, but also keep in mind that the student rental market is highly cyclical and any estimates you make are likely off. I think you have no basis to argue this if the city has better data.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:41 AM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: Seconding "go to the zoning hearings", with the addition of "go to city council meetings too." Battles in municipal government are won by those who show up. Petitions are nice, protests are fine, but when the board meets, if you are not physically there and saying "Here are a bunch of voters who do not like this," then you are effectively silent.

Get your councilmember on your side by pointing out that you not only have Logical And Reasonable Concerns In Properly Organized PowerPoint Form, but you have a visceral and instinctive hatred of this project, and woe be unto the re-election campaign of any councilmember who would not vote against it, or even unto one who would not lean on his or her colleagues to vote against it. My spouse (whose job involves some level of indirect lobbying) puts it this way: "Officials understand two things: money and pain. If you don't have any money, you can at least make it painful not to listen to you."
posted by Etrigan at 7:47 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The guy who owned the large vacant lot at the end of our street wanted to sell it to a bank, but back in the 20's when the property was subdivided from one big parcel, a restriction was put into the legal descriptions of all the properties saying that the land could not be used for commercial reasons. In order for him to get the restriction lifted, every single person in the subdivision (about 120+ property owners) would have needed to agree to it - and since there was great opposition to the prospect of a bank on the corner of our street, the deal died.

So see if there's any sort of restriction that says the property can't be rezoned to a higher density.
posted by Lucinda at 7:47 AM on January 18, 2013

I don't know the relevance to your area and situation, but opposers of developments in our activist area seem to have relied primarily on traffic regulations and the need for studies to forestall projects.

Nine hundred additional "units", since each bedroom could potentially generate a new vehicle to the area, would normally require a LOT of parking spaces and greatly add to the burden on surrounding roads. Since you indicate these are "upscale" units the likelihood of those students having private vehicles would seem greatly enhanced. Establishing parking space allotment requirements can quickly make projects uneconomical.

Traffic regulations are often much more quantitatively oriented and often subject to more regulation than smaller town zoning decisions. Look to see the effect on feeder streets, which may be subject to more state and federal regulation.
posted by uncaken at 7:49 AM on January 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

4. If student enrollment slows or falls off, we will be left with a huge, student-focused housing development that can't find tenants.
4a. Yes, this town is growing and it does need more housing. But it is my belief (backed up with limited research) that it doesn't really need that much more student housing (i.e. the university is already building more student housing as we speak).

Beyond the "you need real numbers to back this assertion up" critique from slow graffiti above: Suppose student enrollment does decline. Is there something about the apartments that would prevent the developers from converting the "rent-by-room" apartments into conventional "rent-by-apartment" apartments? If not, this argument doesn't really hold water. If they couldn't easily be converted, however, then this would be a strike against the plans as they stand.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:53 AM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: How can I be more zen about this entire process?

Try to look at it from the point of view of a person who lives 20 miles away. Is this proposed development a real injustice or would this be OK with you but NIMBY? Is it good for local education? Good for the local economy? Will it harm the environment more than other likely types of development would in that location?

And while you're fighting to stop things, plan for the worst. Can you buy a new house in a quieter location and sell or rent your current house to students? Would current or new zoning allow you to start a business in your home that would be popular with students? If peeing and vandalism and noise are going to be a problem, can you make money selling and installing security equipment and noise monitoring equipment for neighbors? Can you offer any professional services that are likely to be popular with students, thus enabling you to make money from home or with just a short walk to the student housing?
posted by pracowity at 7:54 AM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: To address a few statements - for sure we are already planning on going to meetings. My neighbors are mobilized and motivated, but we aren't very organized (yet). We're forming a neighborhood association and meeting with a City Planner next week. As far as moving goes - we're young (and we can afford to move), but a lot of my older neighbors have a lot more to lose if this comes to fruition, and they have a lot more free time to yell at people.

The land was sold by the school board, zoned as low-density. We (my neighbors and I) have already been to several school board meetings to yell at them regarding the sale, and a few initial meetings with the developers. (Yelling was also involved.) The developer must get the property rezoned, and as far as I know there are no restrictions to up the zoning density (although it seems likely there are restrictions zoning it commercial).

We already live with a bunch of gross, loud undergrads - we just feel that 900 more gross, loud undergrads would be a significant disincentive for *any* owner-occupied housing in the neighborhood. 95% of the time the undergrads are not loud and gross, and 95% of the time I love living in my neighborhood and I like living near the students. We live here for the same reasons they do - proximity to restaurants/work/entertainment, and a charming, established neighborhood. So 95% of the time, we deal.

As far as the NIMBY versus how does the rest of the city feel about this - yes, that is one angle I'm really trying to push. I hope to show that we have a real need for single family housing in the city versus additional student housing, since I often hear about people moving to the area who have difficulty finding a house and are forced to live in one of the surrounding communities until they can purchase property in town. In addition to the university, we have a growing industrial/tech sector, and it has attracted a lot of non-students to the city in recent months and years. Obviously I need data to support this claim. (We do have very low numbers of rental vacancies and houses for sale in this city - but which is lower and has the more immediate need for a remedy remains to be seen. And is the low rental vacancy rate due to the increase in student population or the increase in working professionals who are waiting to buy a house?)
posted by sararah at 8:09 AM on January 18, 2013

4. There is never enough student housing. Seriously. Also, university enrollment is unlikely to decrease any time in the foreseeable future. Enrollment rates don't change -- acceptance rates changes. I haven't heard of a single university that accepts 100% of its applicants, because there just isn't room for them.

3. The proposed development is rent-by-room, so each bedroom will have an individual lease. This doesn't really make it flexible for non-undergraduates to live there. Plus, it's really, really expensive and fancy. The developer assures me "anyone can live there!" to which I say "hahahahahaha forever!"

I'm not sure about your logic on this one. First, "expensive and fancy" + "undergraduate" do not work well in a sentence unless its "It's expensive and fancy so undergraduates can't afford it." The rent-by-room model actual works great for grad students... Grad students are the ones coming into a school who are not guaranteed student housing by the school, so they often need to find a place to live in a city where they don't know anyone on rather short notice. They may leave for a semester or a year to go do research and then come back to analyze that fieldwork. Plus, they often have more money than undergrads and want to live in a place that feels more like an apartment than a dorm, because they're adults. So I tend to think they'll be more attractive to grad students. Grad students, generally, are much less wild and crazy than undergrads. Go out to bars? Absolutely. Pee on the neighbors lawn on the way home? Not so likely.

For the added cars, are you worried about parking or just added business on the roads? If the former, try getting the developer to add driveways to the apartments, or a community parking lot. If the latter, speed bumps sounds like a great solution. Much more viable for the city because they'd be relatively inexpensive.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:11 AM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: I've dealt with zoning issues before, and the way I was advised to deal with them (by an attorney familiar with our local government) was to individually contact each member of the group that will be voting on the rezoning and politely express your concerns and ask for their support. The more people you can get to do this the better your chances of success. Then pack the meeting as best you can with your supporters and if you get a chance to comment, once again politely bring up your concerns. Even if you don't win outright you may get the developer to alter their plans significantly to reduce the impact on your neighborhood.
posted by TedW at 8:12 AM on January 18, 2013

Response by poster: For the added cars, are you worried about parking or just added business on the roads?

Definitely the concern is increased traffic. The city has pretty strict rules regarding off-street parking requirements in new housing developments, so that's not as much of a concern.

I have been a graduate student in this town (just three years ago!) and I know on my stipend would not cover the types of rents that this place is proposing. If it was geared towards graduate students, I think it would be much less of a concern. There are already several locations in town that only rent to grad students/married people/young professionals. This Wall Street Journal article speaks to the type of development that is proposed. Here's the actual developer's website - they have links to similar communities in other college towns.
posted by sararah at 8:16 AM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: First, "expensive and fancy" + "undergraduate" do not work well in a sentence unless its "It's expensive and fancy so undergraduates can't afford it."

As explained to me by the mayor of a Midwestern college town while I was taking a class from him last year: "Most undergraduates don't have budgets, they have parents." According to him, over the previous decade, the vast majority of "expensive and fancy" student housing built in that city was occupied by undergrads or 22-year-old MBA students who acted like undergrads, and had the exact effect on its neighborhoods that sararah is fearing this one will have on her neighborhood.
posted by Etrigan at 8:20 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do zoning for my town and listen appeals as well. IANAL, YMMV, each state and town has their own regs.

First of all due to the fact that you have a high number of rentals in your area I suspect that's why your neighbourhood was so attractive. Second of all sometimes (but not always), student housing developments being proposed by a private developer can be classified as affordable housing (not low income - there is a difference) and states are usually pressuring local jurisdictions to have more of that to be more balanced. Third, because it was sold by the school board, it was probably tax exempt. In most states, schools and places of worship are exempt from property taxes. By selling it to a private developer, your town will make a fair amount in taxes which are main movers of public policy these days.

Your concerns:
1) Foot traffic is usually not a concern for most towns. Vandalism is. Look for how the area will be policed or monitored after the apts. are built. Ask about lighting - a deterrent to say the least. Hopefully your police chief goes to the meeting so you can question him.

2) Flooding is a concern - how will the land be graded or will it be graded? Will there be any retention basin built for run-off. Is the land wet? The forested land - is it protected? Is it privately held?

3) Home values are very hard to quantify esp. near colleges. College towns usually hold their values because people like living there. Usually home values hold even with large developments but that's hard to determine without looking at your area - my suggestion get an appraisal done now to at least have something concrete.

4) Student enrollment is not your problem - that's the developers and the college's. Housing like that could be repurposed to senior lving which is very desirable.

4a) Show up - IMO developers ask for more then they need because usually some of it will denied. As long as you have a group attending public meetings, your town may compromise - they are elected officials for the most part.

Finally, recognize part of this will be compromise. Yes, this will probably go through but if you are diligent about attending and (above all) be polite and willing, the town will try to address your concerns. You may not get everything you want and neither will the developer but working together you can keep the dialogue open to address concerns as they come up. Feel free to memail me further.
posted by lasamana at 9:06 AM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: I think uncaken pretty much nails a part of what would generally be your overall strategy. Generally, the first part of the approval process for large developments like what would happen here is called "entitlements", where the developer submits really schematic plans for what they want to do, that typically include how the buildings will look, what function they'll have, and how their impact on existing areas will be mitigated. The entitlement process is typically very open to community involvement and is really the time to get your oppositions up. Do you have community planning groups that the developer needs to get approval from? Once they go in for actual building permits, it'll really be too late.

While the entitlement process is normally pretty schematic, it does involve submitting a number of reports produced by various engineers, and it's where the developers will work out a lot of the utility issues, like new water supply and sewer load. The reports will typically address stuff like traffic, environmental, and stormwater runoff impacts (see your concern #2), and will be produced by engineering firms hired by the developer. These reports can be a weak point in the developers submittal - if they're found to be faulty or don't account for certain foreseeable impacts, the development gets held up. If correcting the reports involves some kind of mitigation that's beyond the project budget, the project basically dies. The reports submitted by the developer, and really, all plans and other documents they submit, should be open to review by the public, so ideally, your opposition group would hire their own consultants to review the submitted documents (possibly with a land-use attorney) to find fault with them. Basically, if your really want to go hard-core against the project, you're going to have to bring in your own team to counter the developer's team and try to plant doubts about the benefits of the project in the minds of whatever the approval body is. While a whole neighborhood showing up at a planning meeting is effective, emotional appeals don't work as well as fact-based ones with the planning boards (although if you can get the approval decision appealed up to an elected body, like city council, that may be different). The rezoning of the property in question is probably tied in with the whole development package.

I think concerns 1-3 of yours are pretty valid. In one of the college areas of my town, enough people moved out of their own homes and started renting to students that the city instituted a separate approval requirement for "mini-dorms", and set up "campus parking impact" areas where there has to be an off-street parking space for every bedroom in the building.
posted by LionIndex at 9:26 AM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: Your first step is to oppose the rezoning. You have to do this with calm, rational, objections to things that are relevant to the subject of land use and zoning. For example, "I don't want college kids puking in my driveway" has nothing to do with zoning. But, "The proposed density could cause a public safety hazard because the roads are not big enough to handle the number of fire trucks it would take to respond to a large fire at the complex." Or "The sewer infrastructure overflows as it is, and just can't handle that much of an increase in population." Do your research and find actual meaningful grounds to oppose the rezoning. And be clear that it is the rezoning you oppose. Don't get into arguments about the merits of the project itself. The zoning board doesn't give one single shit about whether or not an undergrad can afford the proposed rent. Only talk to them about things that are relevant to land use and zoning. If you win, the project goes away. If you lose, then the next step is to oppose the specifics of the project.

This is when your goal changes from opposing the zoning change to reigning in the developer's vision. Recognize that they've done this a thousand times, and you have not. Nobody wants anything in their backyard. They know that, and they have highly paid people on their team who's sole job is to overcome these sorts of obstacles. So they are asking for 900 units now, because they now there will be neighborhood opposition no matter what they ask for, and they're hoping to maybe get 500 or 600 when all is said and done. You need to do your homework and give actual, valid reasons as to why 900 is outrageous and the land could support maybe 100 to 150 people at most. (Don't just make it up, come up with real reasons. Pay an expert to help you if you can.) You also need to extract concessions from the developer for other things that you might want and/or need. For example, make them pay for the sewer upgrades so that your tax money doesn't have to be spent on it. Make them pay for security patrols, and lighting and privacy fences. Make them put a nice new playground in your part of the neighborhood, or plant a bunch of nice new trees. Get anything and everything you can. And this is important -- make sure that the rezoning hinges on the developer following through on these promises, AND that the promises survive if the developer sells the project to another developer. It doesn't do you any good to get Developer 1 to promise you the moon and stars, only to have them sell the project to Developer 2 who doesn't know anything about those promises, and you end up with nothing.

Hopefully, if it gets this far, you will have extracted enough developer concessions that the project is no longer profitable, and they'll either walk away or go back to the drawing board and come up with another plan. Either way you win. But if the project does proceed more or less as planned, hopefully you've impacted their plan sufficiently enough that you and your neighbors can live with whatever the results are.

And at least you'll be able to console yourself that, "Well, at least they didn't build 900 units...."
posted by spilon at 9:28 AM on January 18, 2013 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Two points in addition to those above:

1. Definitely talk to your own city council members in person, and as many of the other city council members as possible. Similar to your discussions with the planning commission members, you're looking to enlist as many of them on your side as possible and definitely to make the human connection between them & you.

Also talk to as many 'community leaders' in your community--the good old boys network or whoever that may be in yourtown--to make sure they have heard your side of the story personally. What you are trying to get at is personal connections with those who have decision-making power to approve the project, project plans, and zoning change.

2. I would put my main effort into figuring out ways/alternatives that would make the project less problematic and more palatable to neighbors, as opposed to simply killing it outright. You **might** be able to kill it outright but chances are far slimmer, and anyway that property will then be sitting there waiting for the next opportunity. Do you want it to turn into a strip mall or Walmart? That could be next down the pike, and when that starts to happen, the current moderately dense residential housing option might start to seem like a huge positive opportunity for your neighborhood that you missed.

(FYI we had a similar moderate density subdivision go on just 3 houses down from us and though we attended the hearings, asked hard questions, and tried to the city and developers to include features that would benefit both us and the new neighbors, in the end we were very glad the property wasn't the rat-infested garbage dump it used to be nor the traffic-generating Walgrens or strip mall we feared it might become. On the evilness scale where 0 is not evil and 10 is completely evil moderate density residential units are at worst a 1 or 2.)

So, what are things that can be done to ameliorate the damage and annoyance to your neighborhood. Could they improve the area's sidewalks, slow motor traffic, include a park or commons area in the new development? Could it include some single-family houses in the mix, becoming more of a 'mixed use' type residential development that integrates better with the surrounding neighborhoods rather than monolithic cookie-cutter type structures that all look the same (and look different from surrounding neighborhoods).

Could they take some real steps to ensure that at least a proportion of the development, or certain sections, will be non-student housing so that the new development is more representative of your community as a whole rather than just being a monolithic giant cookie-cutter 'student housing' complex.

Could they integrate a few small & appropriate retail or commercial establishments into the development--which could work to make the entire neighborhood more attractive while also cutting foot traffic from the new complex to similar establishments on the other side of your neighborhood.

FWIW and IMHO what is most disturbing to existing nearby neighborhoods is something that is large and monolithic. ALL the same architecture, ALL the same type of unit (all 4-plexes or whatever--a mix of 4-plexes, duplexes, single detached houses, and even one or two 10 or 20 plexes mixed in their will attract more diverse residents and be more future proof), ALL student housing, even ALL residential, ALL in the same price range. The more you have a mixture of things and the more it integrates with the existing neighborhoods the happier everyone will be.

A good set of guidelines to get you thinking is something like this. Push for better connectivity, better walkability, high quality architecture and design, better connections with transit lines, traditional neighborhood structure, sustainability (how are they dealing with runoff, energy usage, are they minimizing the need for single-vehicle auto trips, etc etc etc), and in 10-20 years your neighborhood will be glad of the addition rather than regretting it.

FWIW one reason we were happy with the new residential section in our neighborhood is that it looks like a real, old-fashioned **neighborhood**, not a 1970s brick-wall apartment complex--and yet the residential density is close to what it would be with an industrial-style apartment complex.
posted by flug at 9:31 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

One example of something you may be able to hit them with: although the developers are stating that the complex will be able to be used as regular housing as well as student housing, they may be calculating their parking requirements based on some kind of student housing requirement instead of an apartment housing requirement. I would guess that a student housing parking ratio would generally be lower than standard housing, based on proximity to campus and the assumption that students will either not have cars or the complex would be serviced by a city or university transit system. If they're using a student housing ratio for parking, that runs counter to their assertion that the development could also be used for regular apartments, and providing the additional required parking for apartments could knock down the number of units they're able to provide.
posted by LionIndex at 9:53 AM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: I don't know where you live or how your local government is set up, but typically, you have a planning commission that reviews these (with public input), and then they make a recommendation to city council, who (again, after public input) will then vote on a rezoning ordinance to allow the non-conforming use.

Before the planning commission votes, it will be reviewed by staff (probably who you are referring to when you reference a "city planner.") Make it a point to meet with the staff! You can get your concerns involved before staff makes its recommendation to the planning commission. Do not be histrionic with planning commission staff members. Be quiet, reasonable, and firm. They can be your best friends in this process.

Of course, attend all meetings. Rally as many of your neighbors as you can. Circulate a "WE OPPOSE THIS AND HERE'S WHY" petition and get as many people in your neighborhood to sign it as you can.

I would also highly recommend contacting whatever local politicians that would be friendly to your cause. Would your state representative be such a person? If so, meet with him/her. This is a political process, and you want politically connected people speaking on your behalf (behind closed doors if necessary).

I would also recommend that your neighborhood pool your resources and hire an attorney. Perhaps someone in your neighborhood is an attorney. Rezoning is a technical process and there are very, very many areas along the way where the applicant can mess it up. Approval of a deficient application can be voided, so you want someone watching to ensure legal compliance.

By the way, there is a trend toward in-fill in college towns. The idea is to put student housing close to campus to reduce car traffic. You may very well hear some eco-talk from the developer on this.
posted by chicxulub at 10:24 AM on January 18, 2013

Response by poster: >Circulate a "WE OPPOSE THIS AND HERE'S WHY" petition and get as many people in your neighborhood to sign it as you can.

Done and done. 350 signatures, just from our neighborhood, in just a few days.

Seriously considering trying to find some sort of legal representation after hearing so many comments in favor of that. Too bad the law school is not at this university! However, I have found some local population and demography reports from sociology faculty, and I know we have a lot of faculty studying flooding and its various causes/impacts. So hopefully we can get some pro-bono experts on our side.

Thanks all for the advice so far. Lots to think about, and a few things helping me to feel more zen.
posted by sararah at 10:34 AM on January 18, 2013

FYI my friends have had student developments in their neighborhoods that they opposed and traffic and weekend noise was an issue but vandalism and urination was not. (and foot traffic not a huge deal unless you have a really barky dog) Good luck though, just saying it really didn't turn out that bad.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 11:08 AM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: One thought is to organize an evening at your house with your neighbors, and your local town councilperson. It can be hard to get a lot of neighbors to all show up for a committee meeting, but I bet they will come to your place (just up the block!) for a beer and some chat with your rep.

My brother lives near a college, and his small office is also nearby -- and actually across the street from some student-rented houses. They got a law passed recently which disallows a house being used as...well, Rental To Students, in essence.... if it's close to other houses already being rented that way.

Obviously, this required working closely with local law-makers. Organize, organize, organize.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:51 AM on January 18, 2013

Response by poster: Oh yes, how could I forget? The university is also on record in opposition of student housing at this location. Representatives showed up at several school board meetings to oppose the sale to an apartment developer (preferring single family housing), but in the end the property went to the highest bidder. The fact that the university is trying to hire 150+ staff in the next few years could have something to do with it. So hopefully they show up at the Council meetings and raise some hell.

Good information about St. Paul - it's hard to say how that would help the scourge of unmaintained rental houses on the adjacent blocks in my neighborhood, but it's interesting legislation. I think if we did end up renting out our house, we would try to rent to non-students.
posted by sararah at 1:20 PM on January 18, 2013

Etrigan, that's interesting. It's the opposite where I live (and most undergrads stick to dorms because of proximity), but my college is in one of the biggest cities in the US.

The university is also on record in opposition of student housing at this location.
The university may be your best resource then. Have you contacted them? Having the local community work together with the university to oppose the developer means you can have a more unified opposition and stronger voice. You can probably find a good contact number by looking on the university's website on student housing/student affairs.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:59 PM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: Do not - I repeat - Do not rage against the man. This only makes you look crazy. It does not help.

Yes, the developer may have spoken with planners before submitting their proposal. This means nothing. In the council I work for, if someone comes in and pays for a pre-development consultation they will get one: they will get advice on what's likely to contravene code or not, etc. It is NOT "pre-approval". People make awesomely well constructed proposals that get denied all the time. Also, submitting a project plan doesn't mean much. I read objection letters all the time that read "How can council do this!?" Well, we haven't it. We received a proposal, and we have to tell the neighbours about it - even if we take one look at it and say "No way is that getting approved, hahaha!" Don't Panic.

I work for a council, not in planning, but I spend most of my time reading planning proposals (applications, conditional approvals, refusals, objection letters, etc...). My advice is more behavioral... Be polite and professional all the time. Make sure your objections are based on local council policy/planning code/whatever. "I don't like it, it's ugly, but I don't want to live next to a bunch of kids they'll pee on my lawn and decrease my home value" is not an answer they can really (legally) use. You want a polite, professional bullet pointed list that shows how this contravenes code. Warning: it may not. I wouldn't necessarily hire a lawyer, but a town planner who's familiar with all the legislation and can help interpret plans, draft up those bullet points for you, etc...
Be prepared to compromise... what if it's a dry "healthy living" facility? Or what if it's aimed at mostly mature-age students and graduate students?

Remember that the planners are people - nice people, who are highly trained and bound by A LOT of regulations and legislation and planning protocols and whatnot... and remember that they have to make the best decision for an entire community - not just you. In Australia, the elected council and strategic planners do a new Local Environment Plan every ten years or so, and decide on major goals and directions for the community (which is put on public exhibition and open to comments, etc...). If one of the identified goals is to provide more student housing, it may be impossible to get it completely refused (you did buy a house near a university campus)*... it's gonna have to go somewhere, next to somebody. Everyone thinks it's a fine idea, but trust me - no one wants it near them.

Oppose, Appeal, and let it go. I've worked with members of the public who have driven themselves insane (literally, like they're in therapy on meds because of it) over stuff like this. Decide on a point in the process or a point in time at which you drop it, sell your house, let it go and move on.

*I can't tell you how many people, from our point of view bring this on themselves. Right now I have two projects - one involves someone who bought a house across from a light industrial complex and one of the factories was later approved as a bakery (she hates the smell - but believe me, it could be so much worse!); the other a woman who purchased a heritage identified property and is mad we won't let her knock parts of it down... not sure what they expected. Also, people who buy homes near pubs - pubs with terrible reputations too - and then whinge about the pub patrons. *Sigh* Also, people write in all the time with crap like "this boarding house/sober living facility/home for run-away queer teens/etc." sounds like a great project, we really need one, but don't you dare put it next to my house I can't be expected to live next door to "those people" ". Sorry... where did you want us to put those people? They have to go somewhere. This is how whole sub-sections of our communities get marginalized. (Sorry - little bit of a tangent there.)
posted by jrobin276 at 6:38 PM on January 18, 2013

Best answer: As mentioned above, you do have to think about what concessions you can get from the developer in case this is going to be built. One thing you may want to have addressed: What do they plan to do about bad tenants, the ones who throw loud parties and make life miserable in the neighborhood? This came up recently with a new student housing development here; some of the students were raising holy hell and pretty much terrorizing the area. The complex decided to remind everyone that they can be forced out for rule violations AND they would be responsible for the rest of the school year's lease. Since most of these students are having housing paid by their parents, they don't want to explain to Mom and Dad why they have to pay several thousand dollars for the place they were just kicked out of and then a new place in top of that. Making re-zoning contingent on the developer/manager having an active role in keeping the peace is something that is worth pursuing.
posted by azpenguin at 8:38 PM on January 18, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, all. We had our first Neighborhood Association meeting last night, and obviously most of the neighbors are on the same page. We all have our own personal reasons for opposing this development, but obviously many of the reasons are shared. Some of the neighbors on the edge of my neighborhood have already been impacted by "medium-density" rentals in the other direction (the proposed development is also "medium-density"), so they already have a pretty good argument for how changing the demographics and density has changed the neighborhood vibe over the years. I also learned there's some bald eagles nesting in the sliver of forest, so hopefully that means a larger buffer between the development and the wooded area. At the Association meeting, most people were pretty level-headed in expressing their concerns, and we seem to be able to move forward in a reasonable fashion. We don't really have a "plan" as of yet, but a lot of ideas of who to talk to next - friends that are soil/water experts, real estate agents (other than the one representing the sale), demographers at the university, etc. Turns out my block and an adjacent block are in a "university impacted area" - so we need to find out what that means.

It sounds like the developer has quite a few steps with the city (It's not as easy as just "get the zoning changed"), so that gives us time to get our ducks in a row. We also have good information from the city's neighborhood liaisons and rental liaisons who can more directly address our concerns about problematic rental properties that already exist. The university also had a representative at the meeting last night, although they didn't say much (but they are obviously staying in the loop). I think knowing what city resources are available to us as a neighborhood is a good first step in understanding how we can continue to improve the existing neighborhood and mitigate the the future effects of the development, regardless of which plan is approved.

Having a support group of neighbors has been both good and bad for me. Initially I was very wrapped up in the pitch forks and torch crowd, and had a lot of anger and resentment about the situation. (See above.) However, taking a step back and commiserating with all of my neighbors (and not just the torch wielders) has helped me gain a little perspective, and crystallized a few ideas in my head about what this neighborhood means to the larger campus area and the community as a whole. So, thanks...and here we go!
posted by sararah at 12:10 PM on January 25, 2013

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