Five years and three applications later, a hotly contested fight over plans to build a concrete plant in Franklin County is on the verge of another key decision this week — one that opponents expect is likely to kick off a fresh round of legal appeals.
The argument surrounding the project — which would be within about 600 feet of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s 2,400-acre Shaw Nature Reserve — largely remains the same.
This time, the prospective developer, Landvatter Enterprises, seeks to have a 12-acre parcel rezoned to accommodate commercial activity — a redesignation that would mark a first step toward the concrete plant it has long targeted.
Critics, though, list reasons for opposition that have held steady over the years. With the site of the proposal so close to the nature reserve’s northern boundary, its compatibility with the surrounding area has been one concern of opponents. But in stacks of documents that reflect untold hours of background research, nearby residents outline other worries, including a history of noise complaints and repeated environmental violations at other Landvatter facilities in the region.
Another constant, they say, is an expectation that county officials on Thursday will approve the move against their wishes — something that has happened twice before and has been unraveled by legal challenges both times.
Kelly Brothers Mason and her husband, Mike, are among the residents of Old Gray Summit Road who have been at the heart of the fray. The nature reserve sits across the street from their homes, and just downhill from their backyards is the project site coveted by Landvatter, along Old Route 66.
The Masons and their neighbors voice plenty of concern about what a concrete plant would mean for property values and the area’s ambiance, particularly if restrictions on noise and activity are not in place. But perhaps a longer list of worries surround health and environmental issues.
At Landvatter Ready Mix facilities in St. Charles and near Kirkwood, documents from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources show multiple violations of air and water quality standards spread throughout recent years. Violations have included failures to submit monitoring reports, conduct required tests, and exceeding effluent limits for pH and solids.
The Masons said pollutants are even more of a concern nowadays, given data that show a drop in enforcement actions at the DNR. Others share similar fears.
“We don’t know how much soot, we don’t know how much runoff there’s going to be,” said Mavis Huff, who has lived a few doors down since 1967. “I’ve had heart surgery and a lung collapse, and I’m just really worried about what that place is going to put out.”
On the financial side, opponents are also skeptical that the area can support another concrete production business. They suggest that any new venture would simply reshuffle the local industry’s existing jobs and tax revenue instead of bringing an influx to the county, as the developers have claimed.
“It’s not like there’s this huge demand and a shortage of concrete,” said Kelly Brothers Mason, who added that a former concrete plant in nearby Pacific has been empty for about a decade. “(Similar businesses) don’t have enough to keep their guys working 40 hours a week.”
Landvatter did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In documents accompanying Landvatter’s application for rezoning, however, the company’s legal counsel addressed environmental and noise concerns expressed by opponents.
The response said that Landvatter has “addressed all concerns with air quality that were ever raised” by DNR and that, as of a May 2018 inspection, its St. Charles plant was found to comply with all air standards, while its Kirkwood-area facility returned to compliance in 2017. It said that plant “has also addressed all issues regarding noise complaints made to St. Louis County,” and that the company is working with the DNR on water monitoring at its facilities. Plans for the Franklin County location, it said, would include features such as a berm and detention basin to control runoff.
But nearby residents say they’ve heard these assurances before.
“Even while (managing partner Roger Landvatter) was at the hearing before the County Commission in July 2015 telling the Commissioners he had corrected all the problems, he was quickly cited for numerous violations,” Mike Mason wrote in recent testimony on the issue, submitting letters of warning and notices of violation from the DNR as supporting evidence.
But despite opposition, the rezoning proposal has breezed through the approval process thus far, passing the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Dec. 18 vote by a 7 to 1 margin, and advancing to the County Commission’s Jan. 31 agenda.
That body has granted Landvatter’s bid for the facility twice already, but both rulings wilted amid legal challenges.
In January 2015, a lawsuit helped derail the project after a county official on the Board of Zoning Adjustment was the real estate agent for the buyer and seller and would have stood to profit from it.
“We filed a lawsuit saying it gave the appearance of impropriety,” said Kathleen Henry, president and attorney for the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. “Before we could go to trial on that ground, they withdrew the application.”
Later in 2015, another push to approve the project was reversed after county Planning and Zoning officials failed to hear from opponents of the project until after they had voted.
This time around, nearby residents have sworn in affidavits that they didn’t receive postcard notices about a November Planning and Zoning hearing on the latest Landvatter application, and say the commissioners approved it with little to no discussion after opposing testimony.
County officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The Masons, at least, are bracing for the rezoning application to get approved by the County Commission this week — a feeling they say is bolstered by the fact that they’ve heard Landvatter has already acquired both the land and equipment for the plant.
“Someone somewhere gave (Landvatter) some kind of assurance that this was going to go through,” said Kelly Brothers Mason. “I can’t imagine that equipment was cheap.”
But another, or rather a continued, legal fight will await if the rezoning passes. In that event, Henry says Great Rivers Environmental Law Center is prepared to argue that the project would be an industrial facility “improperly” slated for commercial land.
“Which means anyone can move into commercial with the most noisy, dirty, industrial stuff ever and just call it commercial,” said Henry.
“I think they’re calling an apple an orange,” Henry added. “I think counties should have to call apples apples.”
Kelly Brothers Mason agrees.
“They just keep calling it manufacturing, and it’s completely different,” said Mason, who works in a manufacturing plant herself. “It’s heavy industry.”
She says she’s not anti-development, and would welcome other uses, such as a restaurant or grocery store, that could help draw people to the area.
“Put something in that’s going to make people want to come,” she said. “That would be better tax value in my opinion. That would be better for the area.”