CLAYTON • St. Louis County is on the verge of selling the southern half of Sylvan Springs Park to the federal government for the expansion of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a proposal that drew sharp controversy when it was first introduced three years ago.
The deal comes at a time when officials in county government have been trying to limit their authority to sell parkland by proposing a change to the county charter that would require a public vote before any such transaction. But members of the St. Louis County Council said they had already committed to the Sylvan Springs Park deal in 2015.
The County Council voted 6-0 on Tuesday to advance a bill that would authorize County Executive Steve Stenger to sell 33.6 acres of the park in south St. Louis County to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for $2.4 million. The council is likely to vote on final approval at its regular meeting next week.
The lower half of the park wouldn’t close right away. The VA would lease it back to the county for about 10 years, until the cemetery needed it for new burials. The county would reinvest the proceeds into the remainder of the park, St. Louis County Parks Director Gary Bess said.
Jefferson Barracks is one of the five busiest national cemeteries, and the only one in the region open to new burials. The cemetery added in 2012 15 acres from the nearby VA Medical Center that extended its burial capacity to 2021 and is expected to obtain another 15 acres from the medical center to extend that date to 2028. The addition of the Sylvan Springs site would give the cemetery an additional 20 years of capacity, according to a VA environmental assessment.
“It’s unfortunate that we need this land, but it is very well needed by a lot of people,” Al Katzenberger, American Legion liaison to the cemetery, told the council on Tuesday.
Federal, state and local veterans organizations have pushed for the sale of the park property for years. The council agreed to the sale in principal three years ago in a discussion that drew out both emotional bursts of patriotism and calls to preserve open space.
An environmental law firm filed a lawsuit in 2015 on behalf of three county residents to block the sale, but the circuit court in St. Louis County said the county had the authority to sell it, and the state court of appeals affirmed that judgment.
The St. Louis Open Space Council also opposed the park sale in 2015.
“The Open Space Council is not going to weigh in again,” said its executive director, Katherine Dockery. “We already stated our opinion in the past. Things have unfolded, compromises have to be made, and I hope we can find a longer-term solution, and the solution that our veterans deserve.”
The County Council unanimously approved a ballot question that would change the county charter to require a public vote before parkland is sold or used for commercial purposes.
The ballot question is the council’s response to efforts last year to build an ice rink complex in Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park. Voters in the city of St. Louis approved a similar charter revision in 2007 after an uproar over a plan by Barnes-Jewish Hospital to lease a section of Forest Park.
Stenger signed the bill on Tuesday, but not in time to meet a deadline for adding questions to the ballot. Council Chairman Sam Page said the council would file a lawsuit to make sure it appeared on the ballot.
Page said the council was “comfortable” moving ahead with the Sylvan Springs sale while it tried to limit future sales of county parks.
“In the minds of most of the council members, this was a commitment we made before the concept of taking to a vote to the people came up, and we felt like we need to keep that commitment,” he said.