Last night, Moscow’s Board of Adjustment granted an application by New St. Andrews College for a Conditional Use Permit that would allow the school to remain in the city’s Central Business District. New St. Andrews, a serial zoning violator, moved into the historic Skattaboe Building in 2003, despite the fact that educational institutions were, at the time, expressly forbidden in Moscow’s Central Business District. (Our previous City Council took care of that little problem by re-writing the law to suit the offender. I wish speeding tickets worked this way.)
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to described the Board of Adjustments’ proceedings as farcical. Several downtown business owners offered compelling testimony about the detrimental effect of having a college of 140 students, plus faculty and staff, laying claim to our downtown’s limited retail parking. The owner of Basilio’s, an Italian restaurant directly across from New St. Andrews, explained that he’d purchased his business for $325,000. He offered the city financial proof of the restaurant’s profitably before the arrival of New St. Andrews — and of Basilio’s precipitous nose-dive after — but no one was interested. The Board of Adjustment voted unanimously to grant New St. Andrews a Conditional Use Permit without any conditions. Basilio’s is now on the market for $125,000, but who wants a restaurant without adequate parking?
Bob Greene, the owner of Main Street’s BookPeople, spoke against the permit, as did Kathy Gessler of Sweet Peas and Sage, a florist who relies on the Jackson Street parking lot adjacent to the college. Several private citizens spoke against the Conditional Use Permit, most emphasizing the simple fact that educational institutions do not belong in the Central Business District because they are demonstrably detrimental to retail. It’s very simple: inadequate downtown parking means a reduction in downtown business. New St. Andrews’ unsubstantiated (and unlikely) claim that 140 NSA students spend a total of $2 million per year at various downtown businesses were certainly not evident in the testimony of the owners of those businesses.
Let’s do the math: 140 students spending $2 million per year on dinners, movies, coffee and lingerie would mean each student spends an average of $14,285.71. I’ve just been going over my American Express bills for 2005. I’m not known for my stinginess, and I shop primarily in downtown Moscow. My totals don’t even come close to $14,285.71, and I’m not a student. Technically, I’m gainfully employed.
A parade of students from New St. Andrews spoke before the Board of Adjustment, most prefacing their remarks with profuse thanks for the Board of Adjustment’s selfless public service. The faculty and staff of New St. Andrews did much the same; they also presented self-studies the school has conducted to demonstrate that no, no really, NSA is truly a good fit and it belongs downtown. Call me a cynic, but I remain unmoved. In fact, I’m downright hostile to New St. Andrews in its current location.
Here’s what should happen when you break the law, as New St. Andrews did with its three — count ‘em — three zoning violations:
1. You receive an order from the city to cease and desist. You cease and desist.
2. Okay, you didn’t cease and desist but instead illegally relocated. The city warns you again and issues you a stiff fine.
3. Third strike and you’re out. You pack up your books, your robes, and your dreams of Classical Christian academic grandeur and move to a location that is actually zoned for educational institutions.
You’ve broken the law, but you don’t get away with it. Justice is served and, just as importantly, justice is seen to be served. New St. Andrews is miffed, but they’ll get over it. Retail in downtown Moscow is saved.
What should not happen is that the city sits down and rewrites its zoning ordinances in order to accomodate the violator. Here in Moscow, however, that is exactly what happened. A tax-exempt college which began its life in a persistent and deliberate legal muddle is now, with the city’s blessing, jeopardizing tax-paying downtown businesses. Where is the justice in that? Where is the equity, the fairness, the concern for one of downtown Moscow’s greatest assets, its once-thriving Main Street retail sector?
So be our guest. Move to Moscow. Don’t read our comprehensive plan, just be sure to make friends in high places. Then, you can do what you damn well please. Our city council has taken its eye off the ball, and that means you’re free to kick it — kick it all the way to kingdom come.