At the edge of an open lot in St. Charles, tiny blades of grass are beginning to sprout.
A neighborhood once stood here — but the homes are long gone.
They were among the more than 5,100 homes demolished in Missouri since 1990 through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s voluntary buyout program, which removes buildings from flood-prone land. After the homes are demolished, local governments are responsible for ensuring that no one rebuilds on the properties.
St. Charles County has purchased about 1,400 buyout properties in the last three decades, some of which are leased by county residents.
Richard Luttrell, who owns North Shore Marina, has leased two adjacent buyout properties from St. Charles County since 2012.
For about three months this year, the land was under several feet of floodwater.
The Mississippi River eventually receded, leaving an “apocalyptic” landscape littered with garbage he had to collect.
“Once I lease it, it’s my responsibility,” said Luttrell, who pays about $20 per parcel every five years. “I relieve [the county] of having to worry about those pieces of ground.”
His lease agreement has strict rules on how he can use the land. In St. Charles County, for instance, cutting trees, keeping chickens and hosting bonfires or parties all fall under the prohibited category.
Luttrell mows the land and allows visitors to camp and park there — and occasionally, he hosts small concerts.
“I would love to just be able to buy the property,” said Luttrell, adding that he’d pay several thousand dollars to own the parcels. “Not that I would want to build a subdivision here. I might not ever do anything with it, but it values [my] property more.”
Why can’t buyout land be developed?
It’s unlikely that Luttrell will be able to purchase the properties, because that could make it harder for government officials to control what happens to the land.
The buyout properties have deed restrictions that prohibit anyone from building on the land — with a few exceptions.
They’re also not eligible for flood insurance through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.
Prohibiting future development on buyout land is essential for reducing flood risk for surrounding communities, said Michael O’Connell, a spokesperson with the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency.
“The whole point is to take the property out of the flood plain so you don’t have continuing losses going forward,” Connell said.
Man-made structures in flood plains can restrict rivers when they flood and cause water to rise higher and flow faster, posing a threat to riverside communities.
Removing homes and other buildings in the flood plain also helps move people out of harm’s way, said David Maurstad, director of mitigation and federal insurance administrator for FEMA.
The buyout program is building “a culture of preparedness, so that we can reduce disaster suffering,” he said.
Is anyone monitoring buyout property?
Under program rules, buyout land must be maintained as open space or wetland habitat — but who’s checking?
FEMA only requires reports every three years for properties bought out since 2002. Missouri’s State Emergency Management Agency requests that local governments provide a list and map of all buyout properties they own, SEMA spokeswoman Caty Eisterhold said.
However, more than 90% of buyouts in Missouri took place before 2002, meaning the vast majority are not monitored by FEMA.
Local governments, such as St. Charles County, bear much of the responsibility for enforcing FEMA’s restrictions on the buyout parcels. But it remains unclear whether local governments have the resources to continuously monitor these properties — particularly those that were bought out decades ago.
Historic and current satellite imagery confirms that 15 buyout property clusters in Valley Park, Fenton, Lemay and Eureka remain undeveloped green space.
In a number of cases, however, the roads have also been removed, making it difficult to locate and monitor the original buyout properties.
After the flood of 1993, River Drive in Valley Park was converted into a bike path in Meramec Landing Park. More than 60 homes once filled the area, but there’s little trace of them in the dense forest along the Meramec.
Similarly, the forest has completely overtaken the area along River Bend Drive in Eureka, which was once home to a small community.
The land, which is bordered by farmland, is no longer accessible by car, Fenton resident Lori Brockes said.
“There’s nothing down there,” Brockes said, waving her hand toward the forest. “You can’t even tell where it was.”
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