The Petition That Doesn't: Part 1

A document being crossed off across the entire written page.
Sometimes petitions aren't all they're cracked up to be. Especially when their writers mislead signers.

For context, read this post for some helpful definitions. Opinions in this post are my own and do not reflect an official, adopted position of the City of Prairie Village, but only the position of one councilor: myself.

The petitions circulating Prairie Village that claim to "stop rezoning" (that is, stop land-use reforms that would enable more potentially attainable housing) would put something on the ballot that won't stop the "rezoning." The petition will do the opposite of what the group claims. It increases the likelihood of more density, which they oppose, and decreases control over what can be built and where – which Stop Rezoning also opposes. Stop Rezoning has consistently made rhetorical quips as to "Why change a system that has worked for 70 years?" Yet, they're proposing massive, negative changes to the zoning code. What's the deal?

One of the biggest political topics in Prairie Village has been some petitions regarding "rezoning." We've seen the signs, got unsolicited emails, and maybe received a door hanger. Perhaps you've heard a tall tale about how a gas station, dentist office, factory, or huge apartment could be built in the middle of your single-family neighborhood. All false stories, of course, but stories I've heard all the same.

The group has been secretive about the language of the petition. They won't share it with the press or discuss it with serious media outlets. The group gives some lip service about how one can read the petition when one is about to sign the petition (with somebody staring at you). Talk about a foot in the door plus a hard sell!

Luckily, the Shawnee Mission Post managed to get a copy of the petitions to share with the public. Let's dive in, shall we?

The opening page of the petition is a big list of "WHEREAS" clauses. These don't have much in the way of legal meaning for the proposed change. Their purpose is to state the intent and context of what they're proposing. You can take these with a grain of salt as they are the opinions of the petition writers. Some clauses bend the truth or aren't true. For example, "(a) to permit one family to reside on a lot at a time" is invalid. Multiple family units can live in a single-family dwelling, and they do. As far as I know, no statute demands that this information be true. We've all seen the recent statewide ballot initiatives that shape the question with highly charged, biased language. Buyer beware.

The second page leads with another round of "WHEREAS" clauses – which remember grain of salt – before getting to what the petition proposes, which is two parts.

Section 1: Narrowing The Rezoning Definition

The rezoning petition demands the city adopt a new definition of "rezoning." Note here I provided the understood meaning of the word. This petition replaces that understanding with something entirely novel and deeply flawed.

The Code of the City of Prairie Village, Kansas shall have added Section 19.02.422 entitled "Rezoning" stating: Rezoning means changing a lot from a more restrictive zone to a less restrictive zone, such as permitting two or more families living or dwelling on a lot in a currently single-family residential zone (R-1), or permitting three of more families living or dwelling on a lot in a currently two-family residential zone (R-2).

The petition calls for a new definition to be added to the existing city codes of zoning definitions. The petition says, should it be passed, the word "rezoning" "means changing a lot from a more restrictive zone to a less restrictive zone." This is a huge problem because this definition narrows what rezoning means.

If you note the definitions I mentioned in a prior post, you'll realize that this petition has redefined "rezoning" to mean the same thing as "upzoning." The problem this creates is that it removes the original definition of rezoning, which was broad enough to include "downzoning." If this petition were to pass, what would become of things that are downzoning? They're no longer rezoning!

What does this mean in practice? It means that if you want to change a lot from a less restrictive zoning district to a more restrictive one, then it's not a rezoning, and thus all existing rules regarding rezoning don't apply to this type of change. A swath of scenarios that were once considered rezoning would no longer be rezoning and would no longer require public input or discretionary review to occur. This petition effectively says, "You can downzone by right in Prairie Village now."

So What's the Damage?

One unanswered question: "What makes a zone more or less restrictive than another zone?" Since the petition doesn't provide a meaningful definition, we must consider the city code. The city code states the order of restrictiveness in an ordered list.

If you rezone downward on this list, you are "upzoning" (loosening restrictions). If you rezone upward on this list, you are "downzoning" (strengthening restrictions).

The above ordering of restrictiveness may seem arbitrary, but the consequences are severe. Here are some examples of changes to the city that could happen without the opportunity for input or oversight if the petition were to pass and become part of the city code.

  • The Village Shops could be turned into apartments. C-2 to R-3 downzone.
  • The radio tower on Mission could be turned into duplexes. R-3 to R-2 downzone.
  • Corinth Downs could be turned into apartments. R-4 (condo) to R-3 downzone.
  • Any office building could become an apartment. C0 to R-3 downzone.
  • Any commercial building could become multifamily residential. C-X to R-4/3 downzone.

The above list is just a sample of the absurd things that become readily available for developers to do. Would they happen? It's not clear, but what is clear is that this petition would give us no say as to whether they could happen. This happens when you narrow a commonly understood definition to mean something else without accounting for its effects. To say nothing of what will happen to the city codes everywhere else, the word "rezoning" appears. To put it bluntly, this petition's definition would break much of our city code. In real-life terms, that equates to confusion, angst from residents, and expensive lawsuits. It's a mess.

Big mistakes or something else?

This petition is a boon to developers. If it were to pass, they wouldn't require discretionary review for downzoning.

But why would a group that opposes any land-use changes (and zoning) push to create a new city law allowing all kinds of zoning changes? Could it be the petition writers made terrible mistakes? Is there some other ulterior motive? Perhaps this is why they don't want media and public scrutiny of their petitions.

Just because a petition is being circulated doesn't mean that it is legal or good enough to be codified into an ordinance. There is no review process to analyze the contents of a petition before its circulation. Only the form (layout) of the petition is reviewed by the county attorney.  

In the next post, I'll explain to you the second section of the petition and how it also fails to accomplish the stated political objectives of Stop Rezoning.