An increasing number of initiative petitions have garnered the limelight in Missouri in recent years, including the Earnings Tax Initiative and most recently an initiative aimed at capping interest rates and other fees for payday lenders. Certainly, direct democracy is a benefit afforded our country’s citizens that should not be abandoned, but it must be controlled, lest the special interest groups promoting such efforts seize the legislative process.
This is especially crucial in the context of often highly complex zoning decisions. Developers routinely work very closely with neighborhood groups, city planning department staff, local commissions and local legislative bodies to negotiate details of highly complex development projects, some of which may require legislative action such as a zoning amendment (also sometimes called a rezoning). This process is frustrated by broad initiative and referendum rights found in the charters of some Missouri’s municipalities under which opponents of a particular project can stifle the development process. This is an area which needs reform – either by removing zoning from the initiative and referendum process entirely or by increasing the number of electors’ signatures necessary to yield a valid petition. At least in part because zoning matters are often contradictory, Missouri’s Zoning Enabling Act contemplates specific notice and hearing procedures required for rezonings, as well as a specific protest right for adjacent landowners. Notably, the Zoning Enabling Act is silent as to initiative and referendum rights relating to zoning decisions. In Missouri charter cities, the mandated zoning requirements are expounded upon both in a particular city’s charter as well as in its zoning and development code. However, some city charters, for example Kansas City and St. Louis, provide their citizens with broad initiative and referendum rights that inhibit the development process.
To place a matter in front of the Kansas City Council by initiative requires signatures of only 5% of the total votes cast in the last mayoral election. A referendum petition requires only 10%. In St. Louis, an initiative petition requires signatures of 5% of the total registered voters at the time of the last mayoral election; however, a referendum requires signatures from only 2%. Yet, in a city manager form of government where the citizenry’s initiative and referendum rights are found in Missouri’s statutes, not in a charter, both initiative and referendum petitions require signatures from 25% of registered voters.
Increasing the number of signatures required for initiative and referendum petitions under a city’s charter is one way to curtail this development-inhibiting process. Note too that Missouri law is clear – courts uphold charter provisions which specifically exclude zoning from the general initiative or referendum process (see, for example the City of Florissant, Missouri). If special interest groups are able to control the development process through referendum rights, developers must devote additional capital towards the delay that these rights create. At a time when municipalities and other taxing jurisdictions need the additional revenue that development projects can yield – to say nothing of the jobs these projects often create – measures should be considered to limit the ability of small factions of citizens to curtail the development process through a signature-gathering process.