Connie Burkhardt isn’t angry at St. Charles County.
She’s not mad at a developer trying to make a profit.
She’s upset at the university she loves.
Burkhardt, a retired land-use attorney, is a former president of the Board of Curators for the University of Missouri. She’s also a founding member of the Missouri 100, an influential group of donors that often informally advise the president of the university.
Late last month, Burkhardt wrote university President Mun Choi and resigned from the Missouri 100. She blames the university for the development controversy involving about 400 acres of Missouri River bluff land in St. Charles County. The property, which is directly across the river from Chesterfield, has been owned by the university since 1948 when it was bought from the federal government for $1 as part of an 8,000-acre Weldon Spring tract. For decades, the land, south of the Missouri Research Park and adjacent to the Katy Trail, has been in a development tug-of-war, with the university at various times trying to sell it and the Missouri Legislature, neighbors and conservationists trying to preserve it.
Count Burkhardt as solidly in the conservation camp.
She and her husband, Dan, founded the Katy Land Trust in 2010 to work to preserve Missouri River properties around the trail.
Burkhardt emailed Choi to resign from the Missouri 100 in protest of his decision to try to sell the Missouri Bluffs property to a developer who wants to build more than 300 homes there.
“This is a unique and ecologically fragile piece of property on the Missouri River that deserves the highest levels of stewardship and best practices,” Burkhardt wrote. “Your decision to sell this property with no legal restrictions to protect this river bluff is beyond disappointing to me and to the hundreds of residents who have mobilized to oppose this destructive decision.”
For the past couple of months, hundreds of St. Charles County residents, environmentalists, trail enthusiasts and others have urged the county to block the development proposed by Greg Whittaker, owner of NT Home Builders. So far, they’re winning. The St. Charles County Planning and Zoning Commission overwhelmingly disapproved of the rezoning petition, 8-1. In its current zoning, Whittaker, if he completes the purchase of the land from the university, could build about 30 homes on 5-acre lots.
“He should just do that,” says Stephen Heitkamp, a lifelong resident of adjacent Weldon Springs Heights.
Heitkamp was among the local residents opposing the development who seem perplexed that the St. Charles County Council seems intent on overturning the vote of its planning and zoning commission. The council was scheduled last month to take a vote but delayed it.
Bettie Yahn-Kramer hopes the vote never takes place.
For Yahn-Kramer, the battle is personal. Her family traces its roots to the area as far back as the 1800s. They were among the families bought out on what was at one point an 8,000-acre tract taken by the federal government for the war effort. Parts of the property were used during World War II for ordnance manufacture and then uranium processing. Much of the original tract has since been sold to the Missouri Department of Conservation as part of the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area and Weldon Spring Conservation Area.
“It was for the greater good,” Yahn-Kramer says of the land taken from her family. Once the property became part of the university system, it was still intended for the public good, she says.
“This is a taxpayer-funded public university,” she says. “The way this came about is very out of the ordinary for a public university. This was a very quiet deal.”
Indeed, among the reasons Burkhardt cites for resigning from the Missouri 100 is the fact that the university didn’t follow a public bidding process, and made no attempt to sell to conservation groups who want to preserve the land.
At its core, this is the concept behind groups such as the Katy Land Trust. There is a strong argument, the Burkhardts and their ilk suggest, that preserving the natural landscape around the Missouri River could be as beneficial to the long-term economic benefit of the St. Louis region than building one more subdivision where homeowners can spy two competing outlet malls in the flood plain across the river.
Rather than building yet another monument to excess so somebody can make a quick profit, the university should think long term, Burkhardt says.
“This development will ruin a pristine stretch of land along our namesake river, the Missouri,” she wrote. Her words recall those of a former Missouri speaker of the House, in 1976, when the Legislature blocked the university from selling about 5,000 acres of the original tract.
“The federal government took the land from the people in the first place,” said Rep. Kenneth Rothman. “It ought to be given back to the people. It would be a crime, a public disgrace to sell to a private developer.”
From City Hall to the Capitol, metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.