NEW MELLE • To shield their rustic 60-acre farm near New Melle from development, Patricia Barnard and her husband sold it in 2009 at a discount to St. Charles County for use as a park.
But Barnard, who now lives nearby, was dismayed to learn recently of the county’s plan to first erect a 300-foot communications tower on the site.
“Certainly, I’m disappointed,” said Barnard, 71, whose husband, Robert, died last summer. “We were trying to protect the beauty of the land which we enjoyed. It was never going to be a subdivision and a QuikTrip.”
Asked whether she would have gone ahead with the sale had she known a radio tower would go up there, she said: “I’d have had a hard time doing it, I think.”
County officials say when the site was purchased they didn’t know that a tower, part of a regionwide upgrade of emergency communications now under way, might be put there.
They assert that although the park remains their long-term goal for the property, a firm date hasn’t been set. They point out that the tower would be situated near maintenance sheds, away from most park users.
“We’re putting it in the least public area in the park so it won’t interfere with the park view,” said Jennifer George, an aide to County Executive Steve Ehlmann.
That doesn’t satisfy County Councilman Joe Brazil, R-Defiance, whose district includes the site.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in one end or the other; the tower’s still going to be huge,” he said. “We’re supposed to be taking this ground into the arms of the county to protect it. Then the county comes along and desecrates it.”
Brazil also complained that it would mar the view for people living near the park tract, such as Barnard.
Brazil also opposes the county administration’s plan for a 450-foot tower in another semi-rural area, near Augusta. He says the county should instead consider a series of shorter towers.
Officials have said that could cost more and might not deliver the required level of service.
The structures are among about 35 new towers planned across St. Charles, St. Louis and Jefferson counties as part of the upgrade, which is expected to cost more than $120 million.
One goal is to eliminate dead spots in radio coverage for first responders, including some in the New Melle area.
The upgrade also aims to allow police, firefighters and ambulance crews from different agencies to talk directly with one another as they respond to emergencies.
“It’s for our safety and the public safety,” said Chief Rick Massey of the New Melle Fire Protection District. “If we cannot communicate with our dispatchers, that’s a big problem for us.”
There also has been opposition to towers of varying heights planned for Arnold, Wentzville, Barnhart, Dittmer and west St. Louis County.
The flap over the Barnard site is similar to one over St. Louis County’s decision to put the headquarters for its emergency communications system — including a 250-foot tower — on five acres of the 44-acre Ohlendorf West Park near Valley Park.
Mark Ohlendorf, whose late father had donated the land for the park, was among those who opposed the plan when it became public last spring. St. Louis County officials said they chose the site because of its location and cost savings.
Similarly, St. Charles County officials say they can maximize the money available for their part of the costly project by using county-owned land for some towers.
Land near three county highway department sheds and a park already established — Indian Camp Creek Park — are among planned tower sites.
The county paid the Barnards $960,000 for their 60-acre tract, which was appraised then at about $1.2 million.
A county news release issued at the time said highlights include the family home developed around a log cabin dating to the late 1800s and “many scenic vistas.”
“Acres of tree-lined pasture will present opportunities for limited development as amenities like picnicking, playground sites and tent camping,” the release said.
The site is among five county properties “in reserve” to be turned into parks over time.
George, the Ehlmann aide, said land documents had no restrictions preventing a tower.
Brazil contended that it would go against the intent of the ordinance enacted by the County Council in 2009 authorizing the land purchase.
The ordinance says the property is to be used “in general for park purposes” and that the Barnard family “has found cause to contribute to an ongoing public legacy for parkland with this generous partial donation.”
Barnard said she and her husband, an electrical supply salesman, acquired the land in 1983 and moved there in 1988 from Chesterfield.
Brazil and Barnard said the tower could hurt the county’s future efforts to acquire parkland. “It might deter other people from wanting to donate their land,” she said.
Barnard said she heard about the tower plans from Brazil and then contacted county parks officials to express her disappointment.
Barnard said the county maintains “beautiful parks” and that parks officials assured her that would still be the case, even with the tower.
“I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out,” she said. “It would be nice if there’s another way to get the job done.”