The St. Charles County Planning and Zoning Commission voted Wednesday night to reject a housing development near the Katy Trail, a decision likely to be reversed by the St. Charles County Council.
It was the second time in less than two years the commission has voted down the Missouri Bluffs development, a project that would include more than 200 homes overlooking the Katy Trail and Missouri River in St. Charles.
Dozens of area residents packed into the council chambers Wednesday to voice their concerns, including Dan Burkhardt of the Katy Land Trust.
“The project is still in exactly the same wrong place,” Burkhardt said. “It will still destroy an old-growth hickory forest and place dense suburban development in a place where it’s never been before.”
After hearing more than an hour of public testimony, the commission voted against the proposal by a 5-2 margin, citing concerns over increased traffic, lack of parking and the steepness of the roads.
“I think there’s real concerns with the density of the development and the road width,” said commission member Kevin Cleary, shortly before voting to reject the plan.
But commission member Mike Klinghammer, who voted in favor of the proposal, stressed that the decision of the body may not affect whether the University of Missouri, which owns the land, can move forward with the project.
“They could build the subdivision on their own and have no input from us whatsoever,” Klinghammer said. “They have that right. If we deny it, it doesn’t mean it would suddenly become public land.”
The Planning and Zoning Commission first considered the housing proposal from developer Greg Whittaker of NT Builders in March 2018. The commission voted 8-1 against the proposal, after receiving 126 letters opposing it.
The St. Charles County Council overrode that decision three months later, voting 5-1 to approve the plan and rezone the land from agricultural to residential.
But local environmental groups refuse to back down. Several, including the Missouri Sierra Club and TrailNet, have voiced strong opposition to the housing plan, which was first introduced in late 2017.
John Hickey, director of the Missouri Sierra Club, called it a “very problematic” parcel to develop.
“You’ve got a very steep piece of property in an environment that’s seeing increasing rain events, increasing flooding,” Hickey said. “The exact opposite of what you want to do is cut down all the trees on the banks.”
In April, the County Council voted to revise a county ordinance and allow construction on steeper hillsides than under previous ordinances.
Brad Goss, an attorney for Whittaker, said several strategies are included to prevent erosion.
Every home, he said, will include a “level spreader” — an erosion-control device that spreads water uniformly over an area — and the development will minimize grading of the land.
The project, Goss said, has taken other steps to “approach the development in a sensitive way.” The developer has included a number of “conservation restrictions” in the revised proposal — such as prohibiting the planting of invasive species and taking steps to reduce light pollution — as well as adding land buffers near the Katy Trail.
The University of Missouri currently owns the 386-acre site, which includes the Missouri Bluffs Golf Club. The 18-hole course is leased to Whittaker Golf, a company run by the Whittaker family.
The federal government seized the land from residents and farmers through eminent domain in the 1940s and built a munitions plant. The university later purchased the land for $1 on the condition that it be used for research for at least 20 years. Neither the university nor the developer has disclosed the purchase price for the Missouri Bluffs Development land parcel.
A spokesperson for the university declined to comment for this story.
For decades, the university has developed an extensive research park on the property, which “no one objected to,” Goss said.
“The native habitat that people claim they’re concerned about was changed,” Goss said. “This is a completion of a development process that, quite frankly, has been going on for the better part of 30 years.”
But that long history of development — which has divided up wild habitats into smaller and smaller pieces — is the reason it’s important to preserve this parcel of land, said Hickey of the Sierra Club.
“We want to set a standard that protects the hilly lands along the river as a whole so we don’t see inappropriate development there,” he said. “Once you lose it, you’ll never get it back.”
The proposal now goes to the County Council for final approval. The council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Aug. 12.
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