The evening meeting has just ended at the Earth City offices of Tristar Business Communities. A few of those in attendance linger to talk to the well-dressed lawyer who has spent the last two hours leaning against a credenza, nodding, smiling, offering quips and pro bono advice. As a whole, though, the group seems ill at ease around so much glass and chrome. The older men wear baseball caps high on their furrowed brows. The women wear summer blouses. Their arms are brown, their faces weathered.
Tristar invited most of these people to its corporate headquarters to ask them to intervene in a class-action lawsuit that now threatens Park 370, a proposed $145 million industrial development that the company wants to build in the ecologically sensitive Missouri River floodplain in Hazelwood. Maps and architectural renderings of the project line the walls of the conference room. The guest list is made up of farmers who have already agreed to sell their property to the developer. But foes of the project heard of the gathering and showed up, too. Their presence tempers the discussion, transforming what might have been a legal-strategy session into a public forum.
The debate is subdued and civil, but it is impossible for the decorum to mask the tension. At one point, a woman who has been cradling her head in her hands abruptly rises from her seat at the table and dashes out of the room. An elderly woman hobbles after her, clutching a cane. In the corridor, the younger woman raises her voice in anger. "I didn't come here to go to another Hazelwood debate," she says.
For Missouri Bottoms residents, life itself seems to have become one long debate. The encroachment of the Hazelwood tax-increment-financing (TIF) district has rent the social fabric of this tight-knit farming community. The seeds of strife were sown in late 1992, when the Highway 370 bridge opened to booming St. Charles County. Although the entire highway would not be completed until late 1996, Hazelwood officials could see the future and in 1995 moved quickly to seize the land and reap the rewards of annexation. But their efforts have met with resistance; some landowners have banded together to fight the development with the same determination they would a flood. Others have opted to pursue their own interests. Arguments over the proposed development have caused neighbors to hurl insults and family members to quit speaking with each other.
In essence, a state of siege has descended on the Missouri Bottoms in the past year, invading slowly like fog off the river, then rising over the bluffs to envelop the entire town. Many citizens feel betrayed by their local government. Overflow crowds protest at City Council meetings. The city reacts by hiring a public-relations firm. The developer joins the fray, bankrolling its own "grassroots" citizens' committee. Meanwhile, in the valley, attempts are made to drain a disputed wetland and unidentified surveyors rove undeterred across private property.
The roiling controversy boils down to one question: Should the citizens of Hazelwood, a suburban community of some 26,000 residents, have the right to vote on whether the city gives Tristar a $17.2 million tax subsidy to pay for the construction of a highway interchange and other infrastructure improvements at the site of its proposed private development?
Earlier this year, the municipality refused to certify petitions of an ad hoc group, the Yellow Ribbon Committee, that would have placed the issue on the ballot. Members of the committee, with the aid of a public-policy-law center, recently countered by suing the city to force a vote. That case and a separate lawsuit filed by three landowners in the affected area have halted the project.
Tristar, nevertheless, is forging ahead, lining up earthmovers on its property next to Highway 370. The display of heavy equipment adds to the angst of those living in the valley. Once the city allows industrial development to swallow the first bite of the agricultural land, they fear, it will only be a matter of time before the rest of this rich alluvial plain is devoured. They know that under the state's TIF law, a municipality can seize property through eminent domain if the developer and landowners can't agree on a sale price. Moreover, their mistrust is fed by the recollection that after the city of Hazelwood annexed the Missouri Bottoms in 1995, it started planning to develop the entire area, only scaling back the project to mollify public outrage.
During the meeting with landowners, Tristar vice president Lawrence R. Chapman Jr. leans back in his chair, laces his fingers together behind his head and delivers his pitch while the well-dressed attorney stands by to answer any legal questions that might arise. Chapman reassures the audience that Tristar has no intention of conducting any further development in the Missouri Bottoms. The public doesn't understand the benefits of the TIF law, Chapman says. If they understood its importance as an economic-development tool, citizens would support its use. "It doesn't surprise me that misinformation goes around," he adds. Then Chapman asks the property owners who are already inextricably tied to sales agreements with Tristar to take the next step by joining the company's legal challenge to the opponent's case. "It should be you who decides what you do with your property," he says. "I don't want to push anything down anybody's throat."
After the meeting, Chapman maintains the same amiable disposition in a hallway conversation with an opponent of the development. His counterpart Rich Wurm, a longtime Missouri Bottoms dweller, is as rangy and bearded as Chapman is round and smooth-faced.
"I wouldn't take a million dollars for my house," Wurm says. "That's my story. Lived here all my life. We don't want to leave, and I will stay and I will die on that piece of ground. I will. I can't go anywhere. I'm 68 years old." Wurm adds, "I have a right. I don't tell my neighbors what they should do with their ground."
"I understand," says Chapman, who is wearing a pink monogrammed oxford shirt. "Don't disagree with you."
At Wurm's place, off Teson Road, workers are putting aluminum siding on the exterior of the small frame house. The home improvement is one sign of Wurm's resolution to stay. He and his wife, Rita, bought their 3-and-a-third-acre plot 40 years ago. They raised six children here. Photographs of their grandchildren line the wall above their living-room window, which faces in the direction of the proposed development.
It took the Wurms two-and-a-half years to build the house. It took even longer for them to acquire the land on which it sits. "We lived in the city on 19th Street, in an attic that I fixed up," says Wurm. "I made a bedroom and a kitchen out of it. We lived there for seven years to buy this piece of ground."
To make ends meet, the couple held down full-time jobs. He operated a service station on Howdershell Road and worked for a grocery chain. She worked at a bank. Each spring and summer, they still found time to set out more than 6,000 tomato plants and sell the produce. For a while, they also raised their own livestock.
"We didn't go to a subdivision and pick it up," says Rita Wurm of her home. "We built it. This is as much a part of us as our kids are. I worked all my life to keep it. It's nothing big, but it's mine. It would have been nice if TIF helped us out.
"(Instead) we've paid dearly, personally, for the privilege of being here and dying here, if I choose," she says. "I don't like the Gestapo state that's been created, where a group of 12 people (the TIF commission) can tell me, "Sorry, we want a hunk of concrete you better leave.' That's wrong."
Her sentiments are shared by others in the Missouri Bottoms, where the Wurms are considered newcomers. Here the valley roads still bear the names of the farmers who till the soil. The French and Spanish came to this place early in the last century, followed by the Germans. They have stayed and courted and married and haggled and feuded and lived among each other for a long time. They have endured floods and droughts, and, with the turning of the seasons, they have planted and harvested together. Now their future is uncertain.
Under the state TIF law, the city of Hazelwood has deemed a good portion of the valley a "conservation" area. The statute defines such districts as "not yet blighted ... but (nevertheless) detrimental to the public health, safety, morals or welfare of the community." The city spent more than $45,000 on consultants to come to this conclusion.
Originally, Hazelwood had intended to develop 1,200 acres of the Missouri Bottoms. It had carved up the area into two redevelopment-project areas, known as RPA 1 and RPA 2. But the city changed its plans after residents organized the Yellow Ribbon Committee to campaign against the development. The group's yellow ribbons still festoon mail boxes along Teson Road in the area designated RPA 2.
As a result of the resistance movement, the Hazelwood TIF Commission recommended removing RPA 2 from consideration and reducing the scale of the development plan to approximately 700 acres in RPA 1, which lies next to Highway 370. Tristar, in turn, has plans to develop 450 acres of the area. There are fewer landowners at this location, and the developer already owns some of the property and has sales options on other parcels, making the development more feasible.
Residents of RPA 2 are still wary that their property is being eyed for future development, despite assurances from municipal officials to the contrary. "Don't be confused that this area (RPA 2) is included," says assistant city manager Craig Owens, pointing at a map of the Missouri Bottoms on his desk. "This area is not included. Not now. It hasn't been for a year-and-a-half."
As for RPA 1, Owens lauds the area as prime real estate, but also argues that the remaining redevelopment area needs a public subsidy to promote the city's economic growth. "TIF is a tool to make the project work," he says. Owens' college diplomas, which were bestowed earlier in the decade, hang on the wall of his office. On the opposite wall is an illustration of a tranquil nature scene. The young official has a different vision for the future of the Missouri Bottoms.
"This is the new hottest development corridor," says Owens. "This is the new Highway 40 out in West County. That's what it is. You look at what's happening along (Highway) 370 from beginning to end, it makes little sense, except for the infrastructure problems, that this (RPA 1) isn't developing as one of those very hot areas."
The infrastructure problems to which Owens alludes include the absence of an interchange at the junction of Highway 370 and Missouri Bottom Road. Then there's the lack of sewers. Because the land is mostly flat, the Metropolitan Sewer District is requiring that two pumping stations be constructed. In addition, 150 of the 450 acres that Tristar is seeking to develop sit squarely in the floodplain. Much, if not all, of that land has been inundated twice since 1993. The developer intends to rectify this problem by excavating dirt from an adjacent hillside and elevating the flood-prone part of the property. Finally there's the complicated matter of somehow mitigating the destruction of about 30 acres of federally protected wetlands.
The $17.2 million in TIF funding allocated by the city of Hazelwood for the Tristar development would go toward making these and other improvements on the property. Typically the developer obtains financing for the deal and then is paid back with interest through the bonds issued by the city. The bonds, in turn, are paid for through subsequent increases in property taxes, which would otherwise go to the school district and other local taxing bodies. In this case, Hazelwood and the develoer optimistically anticipate paying off the bonds within 13 years, a little more than half the time allowable by law.
One giant gap in this grand scheme is a levee. Maps prepared for the city by EDM Consulting Engineers Inc. in January 1997 included two possible alignments of levees that, if built, would have protected both RPA 1 and RPA 2. The city tabled consideration of the levee after the Yellow Ribbon Committee began actively opposing the project. In a letter dated May 14, 1998, city manager Ed Carlstrom told residents: "Because of the ruckus which has been caused, I have no choice but to recommend the removal of the levee, utility extensions and road improvements in RPA 2 from further consideration. I do this with regret for those of you who would have realized enormous profit from the levee construction and those of you whose crops could have been protected from flooding and would have benefitted from water and sewer extensions.
"I also regret the loss of this one time opportunity. Without the development, which will occur in RPA 1, acting as an engine to fuel the levee construction, I do not in the future see a similar way of funding the levee. Believe it or not, I am interested in the future of this city for the next generation. If we squander one time opportunities like this, that future will not be as bright."
Charles DeLaPorte, one of the Yellow Ribbon Committee members who is part of the current lawsuit against the city, questions the city manager's vision for the future: "Mr. Carlstrom would like Hazelwood to have a golf course more than anything I know. Frankly, he would prefer that the ninth green be where my house is sitting."
Earlier in the decade, Hazelwood hired a golf-course consultant to dream up some fairway designs. A scrapbook of newspaper clippings on display in the lobby of City Hall attests to the fact. Although more than one golf-course idea has been floated, DeLaPorte's property is situated down the hill from an existing city park. Furthermore, references to a golf course in either RPA 1 or RPA 2 can be found in a 1997 feasibility study of the project.
According to the executive summary of the feasibility study: "Development of a 600-acre or 1,200-acre flood-protected area for a golf course and for office/commercial, industrial and residential use is feasible and practicable.... Water bodies planned within the 180-acre golf course proposed for the site can be utilized for stormwater detention. Such use of golf course land will partially satisfy stormwater detention requirements and thus increase the useable land area...."
Rita Wurm calls the city manager's removal of the levee from the city's plans "political blackmail." It's clear from her comments that she'd rather take her chances with the unpredictable nature of the Missouri River than trust the current city administration in Hazelwood.
As Leon Steinbach limps to the lectern, murmurs fill the Hazelwood City Council chamber. Most of the audience has seen this confrontation before. A flash of consternation passes across the face of Mayor David Farquharson. Carlstrom, the city manager, glares sternly at the retired military consultant as he readjusts the microphone. By now, the room is silent.
Steinbach, the acknowledged ringleader of the Yellow Ribbon Committee, begins by waving a copy of the redevelopment plan in the air. He complains that it cost him more than $40 to buy a copy of the plan from the city. He says the price is unreasonable. He then reprimands city officials for not listening to the will of the people. Citizens would not have filed the lawsuits if the city had been responsive to their concerns, Steinbach says. When Steinbach turns to walk away, the room erupts in applause.
And yet the brief showdown is anticlimactic. The overflow crowd came to the Aug. 4 council meeting to hear the second reading of bills 3163 and 3164, which relate to the two Hazelwood TIF projects. The first bill applies to Tristar's Park 370 development. The second concerns a retail development on Lindbergh Boulevard. The latter proposal is near Steinbach's house, and this is how he became involved with the Yellow Ribbon Committee.
Once the two measures have been read for the second time, the City Council can vote to approve the controversial proposals. But early in the proceedings, city attorney Kevin O'Keefe makes a motion that items 17b and 17c be tabled. The council unanimously agrees.
With the elimination of those issues from the agenda, the City Council grants time for a lengthy presentation on the artifacts to be buried in a time capsule to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the northwest St. Louis County municipality. Formed during the first wave of suburban migration in the post- World War II era, Hazelwood's prosperity has been influenced by major defense contractor McDonnell Douglas now part of Boeing which sits within the city limits. So the time-capsule memorabilia include not only a Barbie doll but also a model of an F-4 Phantom jet fighter.
Then the City Council moves on to weightier matters, considering a special land-use permit for a local retail establishment that specializes in body wrapping. The proprietor of the business explains that her work involves wrapping people in Ace-type bandages like a mummy. "What happens are your fat cells are squeezed together," she tells the council. The lawmakers unanimously vote to grant the permit.
The City Council has been far less cordial in its relations with opponents of the proposed TIF developments. Whereas the developers are given unlimited time to present their side of the issue, the public is routinely limited to 15 minutes of comments. At one meeting earlier this year, an outraged woman took over the podium and dared to be arrested. The City Council adjourned that meeting.
Despite objections, the council introduced ordinances in November 1998 to permit the construction of the Park 370 development with the use of TIF funding. Opponents then initiated a petition drive, which sought to change the city charter so that voters would have to approve TIF developments by a two-thirds majority before any plan could be carried out by the city. The petitions also sought to take away the city's right to invoke eminent domain in TIF projects. In a matter of weeks, the opponents had gathered almost 4,000 signatures.
But Colleen Klos, the Hazelwood city clerk, refused to certify the petitions. The clerk also rejected two petitions submitted later that sought a citywide vote to stop the TIF development. In those cases, Klos ruled that the petitions had been submitted improperly and lacked sufficient signatures.
The city clerk doesn't dispute, however, that the initial charter-amendment petition contained more than enough signatures for it to be placed on the ballot, because the count was verified by the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners.
"We only needed 10 percent, but we got almost 27 percent of the registered voters to say they want(ed) the city charter changed," says Steinbach. "We turned the petitions in on the 11th of December and the 16th. That evening, on the 16th, during a City Council meeting, we tried to discuss it. The city should have taken action on our petitions; they ignored them."
In this case, Klos ruled that unlike other tax issues, TIF is not subject to voter approval. Asked why she refused to certify the charter-amendment petition, the city clerk now says: "It was some technical thing, like it was against Missouri laws to do whatever it was that this petition wanted done."
On July 22, the Yellow Ribbon Committee filed suit in St. Louis County Circuit Court against Klos to force her to put the issue on the ballot. The committee has enlisted the legal assistance of the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Social and Economic Justice. The Detroit-based center, which is part of the National Lawyers Guild, is a progressive legal-advocacy group that opposes corporate welfare. The suit prepared by the law center alleges that Klos' decision to keep the issue off the ballot is based on "legal assumptions and conclusions of law that fall outside her unconditional ministerial duties as Hazelwood city clerk." In other words, she is unqualified to make such a legal judgment.
The suit points to other actions taken by the city that could also be construed as demonstrating poor judgment. On July 1, 1998, for instance, Hazelwood entered into a six-month contract with Unicom Group, a public-relations firm. The agreement called for Unicom to provide the city "on-going campaign planning, creative programming and program implementation for a grassroots campaign to (1) educate the members of both the public and the media about the importance of these redevelopment plans to the City; (2) create an understanding of how these plans will be beneficial to the community in the years to come; and (3) clearly show that residents of the affected areas are being treated with fairness and respect...."
The public-relations firm charged $2,000 a month for its services, plus expenses. "Unicom helped the city produce three informational pieces that were mailed to all city residents," says Greg Berg, a Unicom staff member who worked on the campaign. "We also helped them organize their council meetings, because the original council meetings, when the people were starting to talk about this last summer, were basically screaming sessions."
Mayor Farquharson promoted the development by sending out an invitation to block captains to attend a meeting to discuss the need for the TIF development. "Because some people in the community have vocally opposed the project without knowing or telling the facts, the Council and I are asking that Block Captains, along with the City's Board and Commission members come hear the facts so you can talk to your neighbors," wrote Farquharson. "This project represents the future of Hazelwood and is vital to the City. That is why the City Council and I have worked with the investor, Tristar Business Communities. After many months of studying the opportunities and working to minimize any negative impacts of the project, the Mayor and Council UNANIMOUSLY approved this exciting project."
Two council members, Peg C. Lampert and Jeanette M. Eberlin, went beyond just talking about the project with their neighbors: They solicited voters to sign a counterpetition to withdraw their names from the original one.
Another council member, Robert M. Aubuchon, accepted a $50 campaign contribution on March 1 from Chapman, one of the partners in Tristar, according to campaign-finance records. The finance report lists Chapman as "self employed."
But this donation is a pittance compared with the amount Tristar bestowed on the Citizens for the Protection of the Future of Hazelwood. In a letter to the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners, an attorney for the ad hoc committee stated that the committee was formed "to oppose certain referendum and initiative propositions being put forth in the city of Hazelwood, Missouri." As of April 7, Tristar the committee's sole contributor had given more than $9,800 to the cause.
The treasurer of the Citizens to Protect the Future of Hazelwood is recorded as Donald E. Young Sr., according to county election-board records. Young is the president of the Hazelwood Industrial Development Authority. Farquharson appointed him to that position, and the City Council approved the appointment. The mayor, with the council's approval, also appointed Young to the Hazelwood TIF Commission, which recommended granting $17.2 million in TIF to Tristar for its Park 270 development.
Young did not return telephone messages. Asked whether he considered the $9,800 donation appropriate, Chapman, one of the developers, says: "People ask us for money all the time. Am I supposed to publish a list of people that I give money to every week?"
The Hazelwood Industrial Development Authority appears to have had a long-standing interest in developing the Missouri Bottoms. In 1994, the agency donated $10,000 to a Hazelwood campaign committee that supported annexing the area. After several years and court fights, the city of Hazelwood completed the annexation in June 1995. On July 6, 1995, Diversified Holdings Corp. acquired a 37-acre tract of land north of Highway 370 for $400,000 in the area that later became part of Hazelwood's TIF district. The owner of Diversified Holdings is Rodney Thomas, another partner in Tristar. In 1996, another of Thomas' companies, Landmax Inc., bought approximately 148 acres for $2.3 million in the yet-to-be designated TIF district.
In short, companies controlled by Thomas acquired 185 acres more than 40 percent of Hazelwood's future TIF district within a year of the area's being annexed. And two years later, Thomas' new company, Tristar, became the designated developer of the TIF district.
Rodney Thomas started his construction company in 1972, the year after he graduated from Hazelwood High School. By 1998, Thomas Development had grown into a real-estate empire. The company changed its name to Tristar last year. Tristar is responsible for developing some of the largest business parks in the area, including the 2,700-acre Gateway Commerce Center near Edwardsville, Ill. Chapman left Perkinson Realty Group to join the firm. The other partner is Michael Towerman, a real-estate attorney and former general counsel for Midland Group. Midland put together the St. Louis Marketplace on Manchester Avenue in the city of St. Louis, which was one of the first TIF projects in the area. Towerman and Thomas together run dozens of corporations from the same address in Earth City.
Even though Tristar has managed to acquire sales options on most of the remaining parcels of land that it needs for its Hazelwood TIF project, the deal is far from done. One tract that has eluded the developers is jointly owned by members of the Vasquez and Teson families. Three of those family members have filed a lawsuit challenging the right of the city to condemn their property for a private development.
Although Hazelwood assistant city manager Owens now says that he does not believe that eminent domain will be needed to carry out the TIF project, it is clear that he discussed using the condemnation process with the developer. In an interoffice memorandum stamped "confidential," Owens informed the TIF commission, the mayor and council on Oct. 13, 1998, of the status of negotiations between Tristar and the landowners. In the memo, Owens wrote: "Mr. Chapman expressed that he wants to avoid condemnation, and will pay higher prices if the TIF Commission wants to include that as a TIF expense. However, his concern is that even if higher offers are made, one or two of these owners may still not agree to sell. In those cases, condemnation (or the power to use it) may be necessary."
One landowner who has changed her mind about the development is sod farmer Linda Schroeder. Her property abuts the land that is proposed for the development. Last year she told us: "I don't think Hazelwood has any right to come here and demand this property that's been in our family for five generations and only give us peanuts." Now Schroeder says the same thing about the Yellow Ribbon Committee, which she helped form. She accuses Steinbach of butting into the affairs of the landowners by filing the lawsuit to stop the TIF project. "As far as we're concerned," says Schroeder, "we feel that the Hazelwood City Council has done everything within its power to protect the people and also the developer."
Pat Jackson, the City Council member whose ward includes part of the affected area, doesn't see any problem in the way the city and the developer have gone about pursuing the project, either. It is her opinion that the council members are more knowledgeable about the development and therefore should make the final decision. Jackson says that giving voters the final say in the decision "seems like an unwise move to me, unless you're going to have the people become experts on TIF and development and yadda, yadda, yadda, which are confusing issues, anyway."
However, when Jackson is asked whether it makes sense to build such a huge project in an environmentally sensitive floodplain, she passes the buck: "Not being one of the experts like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Metropolitan Sewer District and all those kinds of people, I really have to defer to their superior knowledge of those kinds of issues and concerns. If they felt that it would do more harm than good, if they felt that it would make a bad situation worse, than they would require of Tristar whatever measures (that) would offset any problems that they create. Not being an expert on those kinds of things. I really have to defer to their judgment."
An old-timer who lives around these parts tells a story about a team of mules having to be hitched up to pull his car out of the muck. Others say that during the spring thaw, the gumbo has the habit of snatching boots and never giving them back. They say that truckloads of concrete rubble can be dumped on these bottoms, and it will disappear without a trace. The summer sun, which seems to burn hotter along this flat expanse, has baked the same soil into a hardened mass. It is cracking in places, creating long, deep fissures in the ground. A fist-sized clod of this dried silt feels as if it weighs five pounds. When dropped from waist height, it doesn't crumble, it thuds. The hardpan is deceiving, though, for water is never far removed from the floodplain. It hangs in the air like a wet sheet on a clothesline even in the driest of seasons, and it saturates the ground, rising to the surface to create wetlands alongside the roadways, where egrets and herons feed.
This section of the Missouri River floodplain extends from St. Stanislaus County Park east and then south to Bridgeton, following the semicircular bluff line. As a result of its proximity to the river, the area is naturally swampy. But the farmers hereabouts would likely contend otherwise. They have planted much of the land in soybeans or corn; the latter now stands more than 6 feet tall. The stalks are rooted in loess that is 80-100 feet deep. Those depths represent the estimated distance between the surface and bedrock.
Two floods in 1993 and 1995 inundated parts of the Missouri Bottoms, and approximately 150 acres of Tristar's proposed 450-acre development could be affected by future high waters. In addition, field tests conducted for Tristar show groundwater present within 3 feet of the surface. A map prepared by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources colors the Missouri Bottoms yellow, signifying that the area will probably liquefy if an earthquake occurs. By all accounts, the floodplain is geologically unstable.
In a Tristar memo sent to a Hazelwood city official last August, Chapman expressed concern about the soil composition: "We have wholesale deep soil problems in the form of naturally consolidated soils that will not withstand the construction of improvements (i.e. buildings) without substantial settlement. Therefore, remediation of the site on what appears to be a wholesale basis is going to be required.... A preliminary estimate of the costs to do this is several million dollars." For portions of the area to be elevated from the floodplain, 2-4 feet of fill dirt will have to be dug from a nearby hill and transferred to the lowlands.
This would seem good enough reason to think twice about building a business park at this location. But the developer and Hazelwood officials contend that it has all been done before, and, indeed, it has. Upstream, the floodplain is being rampantly developed in Chesterfield, and the Earth City business park has been filled to near-capacity. Two levees Monarch and Howard Bend are being enlarged to protect these areas. As a result, floodwaters will be forced elsewhere.
The floodplain is like a shriveling sponge. Recent deluges have been brought on not so much by increases in annual precipitation as by decreases in ground to soak it up. Water volumes haven't surpassed the levels of the past but have still caused more damage because levees, channelization and other human encroachments on the floodplain have kept the water from spreading out over the entire river valley.
Across the state, hundreds of thousands of acres of Missouri River wetlands have vanished in the last century. Only about 5,800 acres of forest remain along the river from Kansas City to St. Louis, according to federal estimates.
As a part of its plan to develop the Missouri Bottoms, Tristar is proposing the additional destruction of more than 28 acres of wetlands, some of it forested. To mitigate this destruction, Tristar has promised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it will set aside 20 acres of existing wetlands at the site and allow another 50 acres of adjacent land to remain undisturbed. The plan is opposed by the Audubon Society, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Sierra Club, which has called for a public hearing on the issue.
The Corps, which has jurisdiction over wetlands, will hold an informational meeting on the Tristar proposal from 2-8 p.m. Aug. 25 at Hazelwood City Hall. A spokesman for the Corps says there is little chance that a public hearing will be held, however. In the past, the agency has routinely granted requisite permits for developers to build in the floodplains of St. Louis County, even though the projects can be interpreted as being in violation of the Section 404 of the U.S. Clean Water Act. Under the federal law, non-water-dependent projects are supposed to be located outside the floodplain if any alternative location exists.
In this instance, the state TIF law is promoting the development of a floodplain, which counteracts provisions of the Clean Water Act that seek to place limits on such projects. The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is on record as being opposed to further floodplain development, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is specifically opposed to the Tristar proposal.
"They (the Corps) have to show that these people have absolutely no alternative but to build this in this environmentally sensitive area," says Rick Hansen, an agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Cumulatively, there has been little regard on how you add all this stuff up with the casinos and Page Avenue and the Howard Bend levee district and development in St. Charles County," says Hansen. "Is this stuff getting out of hand?"
From Hansen's vantage point, he has to wonder just whose hands are at work. On a visit to the development site earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife agent observed waterfowl in a wetland that had been designated as cropland. An interagency dispute developed over whether to change the designation. Since then the argument has become a moot point, in part because someone has attempted to pull the plug on this particular wetlands debate by digging a ditch approximately 15 feet wide and 3 feet deep.
After the meeting with property owners at the Tristar offices, Chapman muses over the future of the Park 370 development and the state's TIF law. "The bottom line is that the property in and of itself cannot afford to pay for certain public infrastructure work," he says. "Once you put an interchange in, the county wants all of its roads upgraded for the traffic it will handle. Bridgeton wants all of its roads upgraded for the traffic it will handle. You've got property that doesn't have any kind of utility or street system to be able to attract people in who want to build buildings, buildings like we have in Earth City, and I've been here for 10 years.
"You know, the TIF laws right, wrong or indifferent probably have been abused. I personally don't think we're doing it in this case, but it's not a matter of individual municipalities, because it's a state constitutional issue. It needs to be changed by our Legislature. That's where these energies need to be focused. Is the TIF legislation perfect? Hell, no. Will it ever be perfect? Probably not. Will it always change? I'm sure of it. It's like everything else. You put something in place that you think is a good tool. Someone figures out how to abuse the tool. You try to fix the tool. The tool gets abused. You fix the tool or you eliminate the tool."
Farmers in the Missouri Bottoms, like farmers elsewhere, are accustomed to using different kinds of tools: plows, tractors, combines. But the argument in Hazelwood over TIF has mandated that the people who till the ground now use implements of another kind. Under the August sun, a farmer sits on the tailgate of his pickup truck as his barefoot daughters play nearby. His wife interrupts his conversation, beckoning him to take refuge in the shade of the front porch, but he ignores her plea. His callused hands continue to thumb through a stack of legal papers, which chronicle the bitter dispute that is now being fought out in the courts. He mentions that depositions of Hazelwood city officials are being taken on this day, and he speaks with disdain of one of his neighbors. The threat of development has already changed something here; a certain fragile trust has been violated, and it may never be mended. One way or the other, things in the Missouri Bottoms will never be the same.
From Rita Wurm's perspective, things that aren't broke don't need fixing. "We're not standing in the way of progress," she says. "We're just trying to preserve a way of life. They talk about all their tax dollars and everything, (that) there have to be these redevelopment projects to compete with the communities around us. Why do we have to compete? The more built up and commercialized it becomes, the more people are saying, "This isn't for me.' Why can't they just let it be a community where there is still green space, where you can still take your children to watch the wild geese?"