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Missouri Highway 141 closed

Workers with the city of Maryland Heights and the Levee District lay lines to pump water out of the median on Wednesday, June 19, 2019 on Missouri Highway 141. The highway is closed on both sides from Creve Coeur Airport Road to Creve Coeur Mill Road due to flooding from Creve Coeur Lake. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

For 25 years, Toni Armstrong has enjoyed the occasional respite surrounded by nature in Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park.

The 65-year-old Maryland Heights resident has walked, biked and paddled there. She’s seen the water rise and fall. She saw hundreds of trees downed and dozens of acres scraped flat by bulldozers a couple of years ago when the county planned to build an ice rink in the park but was stopped because the entire process had bypassed federal and state environmental protections.

“We eventually lose when we attempt to tame the natural world, whether it is levees, dams, mining operations,” Armstrong says. “I watched in dismay, but not surprise, the flooding in northwest Missouri as levees were breached or broke earlier this year.”

When that water, from massive rains throughout the Midwest that flooded the entire Missouri River basin and much of the upper Mississippi River Basin, made its way to St. Louis, the area near where Armstrong lives, the floodplain that surrounds the Creve Coeur park, turned into a virtual “bathtub,” she says.

That water has subsided, though upstream in Nebraska and the Dakotas river watchers are already sounding alarm bells about the potential for more flooding this winter and spring.

Now city leaders in Maryland Heights, eyeing a pot of retail gold promised by developers, want to create a $151 million tax increment finance district to build levees and pumps to empty the bathtub and replace it with asphalt and roofs from big-box stores.

It’s madness, Armstrong says.

“I lived in St. Louis in 1993 and remember the floodwaters in Maryland Park Lake District,” she says. “When is the next catastrophic flood that breaches the levee?”

David Stokes knows the answer to that question.

It could be this spring. And if not next year, then the year after that. Or maybe a couple more years. But it’s coming.

“Their action,” Stokes says of the Maryland Heights City Council, “will make flooding worse. The city doesn’t care at all.”

Stokes is the executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. The nonprofit organization has been working for years to raise awareness about how bad development policy — particularly when cities offer tax incentives to build in the flood plain — makes flooding in the St. Louis region worse, and also does little to raise the economic performance of the region as a whole.

He’s urging the St. Louis County TIF Commission to turn down the Maryland Heights proposal. The commission will hold a hearing on the issue at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Maryland Heights Government Center.

“They’re never going to be able to answer the question about the next time a big rain comes during a time that the river is up. Where’s that water going to go?” Stokes asks. “It’s going to flood somebody.”

For Stokes and other flood plain preservation activists, it’s a lonely battle standing up to elected officials who can’t see beyond the sales tax revenue promised by developers and their phalanx of experts. They have the economic research and the flood policy research on their side. Building retail developments in areas destined to flood again, and using taxpayer dollars to do it, is throwing good money after bad. But all over St. Louis — and the country — elected officials turn their backs on the data time after time.

“It’s so frustrating to have all the research on our side and have it completely ignored,” Stokes says.

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A series of maps on the habitat alliance website show the effect the Howard Bend Levee in Maryland Heights has had on the rising water across the Missouri River in St. Charles County. Regular flooding is getting worse in the Main Street area of St. Charles, in part because of what is happening in St. Louis County.

Building more levees, and adding more pumps, might keep the water off Highway 141; it might allow Marine Avenue to remain open during high-water events, but the water has to go somewhere, Stokes says.

And that’s precisely what should happen to the proposed retail development.

If the St. Louis region can sustain it, then build it somewhere else. Not in a flood plain. Not with taxpayers padding the developer’s pockets, Stokes says.

For Armstrong, there’s another issue.

Her daughter graduated from Parkway schools. It was a good education, she says. But what happens to the next generation when the tax dollars within the financing district start being diverted from Parkway and Pattonville school districts?

Who wins then?

“The winners won’t be the residents of Parkway and Pattonville school districts, or the residents of Maryland Heights, or taxpayers, or the users of Creve Coeur park,” Armstrong says. “The beneficiaries in the short run could be the landowners who have gambled in paying for a levee as the flooding risk increases each year. Should the taxpayers reward that gamble? I think not.”

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