Sunset Hills Tornado
5:35 am
Fri December 30, 2011

Still up in the air: Sunset Hills, a year after the tornado

One year ago tomorrow a rare winter tornado tore through the St. Louis County suburb of Sunset Hills. Since then residents who could repair their homes have moved on, but as St. Louis Public Radio’s Joseph Leahy reports, those who lost everything are still battling city hall for the future of the neighborhood.

The tornado

Harlan Gast rode out the Sunset Hills tornado last year under his tractor.

The whole thing only lasted about 20 seconds,” Gast said. “And I stood up and I looked around and thought ‘what a beautiful day.’ Wind still and everything. I looked over and saw the house where we lived across the street and it was pretty well gone.”

The unusual F3 tornado that descended on Sunset Hills around 11:00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve centered on the block of West Watson Road and Court Drive east of Lindbergh Blvd. Gast’s house was among the 10 destroyed.

A year later, tree stumps and bare concrete foundations are all that remain of the shady grove that once sheltered the block from commercial traffic on Lindbergh Blvd. The tornado has altered the area so much that, with the housing market slump, no one will buy the remaining homes and vacant lots. 

Sunset Hills Alderman Dee Baebler was among those helping residents in the devastated area less than an hour after the tornado struck. She says it will take more than a decade to return the neighborhood to its previous state.

“A lot of those folks are kind of just stuck,” Baebler said. “There’s a couple people trying to sell their homes with real estate agents and were visited by several and were just told ‘no, were not interested in a contract on your home with the way the condition of the street is now.’”

Fighting to rezone: build business

Because it’s the adjacent commercial properties that are now depressing home and land values, Gast and other neighbors are fighting to rezone the area for commercial development.

“The zoning board is our problem,” Gast said.“None of them went through a tornado. They don’t know what we’re going through. We’d like to sell our property and move on. I need the money to do things and some of these other people -- they need the money too to move on...”

What’s most aggravating, Gast says, is that while no one wants to build a home on his empty lot, there is ample interest in building a new business there.

Gast and at least 11 other property owners have signed an intent-to-sell contract with the local developer Sansone Group. The company plans to build a 13-acre senior living center if and when the area is rezoned. The company has declined to comment for this story.

Fighting to rezone: build homes back

One resident who did not sign with Sansone Group is Jim Suellentrop. His home on West Watson Road sustained over $60,000 of damage, but has since been repaired. He says he intends to stay and is fighting efforts to rezone the area.

“The residents that were left behind were very much against that,” Sullentrop said. “We didn’t want any more commercialism than we already had along Lindbergh. So there was a definite divide. I’m sympathetic and I understand the loss that people had taken. But at the same time, I certainly don’t want to end up losing any more, because we've got a commercial development right down the way from  us...”

Keeping it residential

Suellentrop and other neighbors opposed to rezoning their block vocalized their rights as residents at Planning and Zoning Board meetings and with the Residential Recovery Task Force, a group appointed to look at residential concerns after the tornado.

Jim Williams is chairman of the taskforce. He says though he sympathizes with the property owners who lost their homes, the rights of remaining residents and the city’s comprehensive zoning plan supersedes their predicament.

“We’ve really gotten to this point a year later and it really hasn’t been that long,” Williams said. “The ground has still just been assembled and cleared. I think that some of the property owners are saying ‘you know it looks like we’re not going to be able to put a commercial development in here. It really doesn’t look like this is going to happen.’”  

After months of heated debate, the city’s Planning and Zoning Board voted last month to keep the area residential. 

Gast says he and his neighbors who want to sell their properties will continue trying to have the area rezoned.