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St. Charles County Council delays vote on Missouri Bluffs

Members of the St. Charles County Council listen to public comment on the proposed Missouri Bluffs housing project during a meeting of the council in St. Charles on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

ST. CHARLES COUNTY — In the last public vote on the issue, the St. Charles County Council gave final approval Monday night to a developer’s proposal to build up to 221 residences on the Missouri Bluffs near the Katy Trail.

The council voted 5-1 to greenlight the longstanding proposal by developer Greg Whittaker of NT Builders LLC to build 161 single-family homes and up to 60 multifamily units on the edge of the Missouri Bluffs Golf Club near Highway 40 (Interstate 64) on public land he plans to buy from the University of Missouri. Council member Mike Elam cast the lone vote against the bluff subdivision.

The project, announced in late 2017, has long been opposed by environmental groups, local residents and trail enthusiasts who have packed St. Charles County meetings to voice concerns the project would permanently mar the landscape and detract from the experience of people using the Katy Trail.

The County Council has at least thrice delayed a scheduled final vote on plans for the subdivision to allow NT Builders to revise the project in response to environmentalists’ concerns, including reducing the number of planned dwellings from more than 400 residences and setting aside a little more than 47 acres for a publicly managed park.

“This is a very environmentally friendly subdivision,” said council member Joe Brazil, who voted to approve the project. “We believe we worked very hard with all the parties involved to make this a really good compromise.”

John Hickey, who heads the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club, said his group would continue to fight the project.

“This is the wrong place for this subdivision,” Hickey said in a written statement. “Wealthy developers with insider access should not be able to profit by converting public land into private profit.”

Approval from five of seven council members was needed for the project to pass, after the county’s planning and zoning commission voted 5-2 to recommend the council reject NT Builders’ layout and lot design, which requests a number of exceptions to county ordinances. Among other considerations, the design sought narrower roads and development on steeper slopes than usually allowed.

The vote Monday marked the second time the council reversed the recommendation of its planning and zoning commission against the plan. Last year, the council approved the concept for the subdivision in a 5-1 vote that was met with a chorus of boos from the crowd of several dozen in the council chambers. But developers needed to gain approval on a more detailed layout and lot design of the plan before they could break ground.

The University of Missouri owned the bluffs land as part of the Missouri Research Park that developed along Highway 40 over the last 30 years. It received the 8,000 acres for $1 as federal surplus property in 1948 from the federal government, which had taken parts of the property from residents during World War II for ordnance manufacture and uranium processing. After fulfilling the stipulation that the land be used only for research for 20 years, the university gained the right to sell it. The university has refused to specify the sale price for the property before the sales contract was finalized.

Elam said after the meeting the university should have sought public input or other offers to buy the land before selling it.

“This development should have never made it to this point,” he said. “They didn’t seek a ‘win-win.’ It was a deal they made and pushed through.”

The council received more public comment from opponents of the plan than on any other council vote since he became a member in 2013, he said.

“This was the largest and clearest ‘don’t do this’ we have ever received from the public,” he said.

There were no opponents of the plan to speak publicly at the meeting Monday, which was the second council meeting since the council voted to delay a scheduled final vote Aug. 26. It was unclear exactly when the council would take up the bill until Monday night. The council was short of a regular seat after former council member Michael Klinghammer resigned in August to take a full-time economic development job with the city of St. Charles. Council member Joe Cronin was out of town but appeared at the meeting by video conference.

County to buy, preserve bluffs land

After the bluffs vote, County Executive Steve Ehlmann announced that the county hopes to buy from the university roughly 200 acres containing the Missouri Bluffs Golf Club and an additional 100 acres just west of Highway 40 not slated for housing for a total $2 million.

The university sought bidders for the land earlier this year, saying that 46 of those acres along the Katy Trail would be restricted for use as trails and public space. About 100 acres would be open to the public.

If the County Council approves the deal, the county would acquire the land the golf course currently rents on a lease that expires in 73 years, County Counselor John Watson said. The golf course generates about $100,000 a year, which it would pay to the county, he said. The money would go to the county parks’ fund.

Whittaker heads the company NT Builders LLC, the company behind New Town St. Charles — a development known for its “new urbanist” design.

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.