The Low Road

Hazelwood officials cast their lot with the developer of a controversial project in the flood-prone Missouri Bottoms. Their gamble is tearing the North County community apart.

The evening meeting has just ended at the Earth City offices of Tristar Business Communities. A few of those in attendance linger to talk to the well-dressed lawyer who has spent the last two hours leaning against a credenza, nodding, smiling, offering quips and pro bono advice. As a whole, though, the group seems ill at ease around so much glass and chrome. The older men wear baseball caps high on their furrowed brows. The women wear summer blouses. Their arms are brown, their faces weathered.

Tristar invited most of these people to its corporate headquarters to ask them to intervene in a class-action lawsuit that now threatens Park 370, a proposed $145 million industrial development that the company wants to build in the ecologically sensitive Missouri River floodplain in Hazelwood. Maps and architectural renderings of the project line the walls of the conference room. The guest list is made up of farmers who have already agreed to sell their property to the developer. But foes of the project heard of the gathering and showed up, too. Their presence tempers the discussion, transforming what might have been a legal-strategy session into a public forum.

The debate is subdued and civil, but it is impossible for the decorum to mask the tension. At one point, a woman who has been cradling her head in her hands abruptly rises from her seat at the table and dashes out of the room. An elderly woman hobbles after her, clutching a cane. In the corridor, the younger woman raises her voice in anger. "I didn't come here to go to another Hazelwood debate," she says.

For Missouri Bottoms residents, life itself seems to have become one long debate. The encroachment of the Hazelwood tax-increment-financing (TIF) district has rent the social fabric of this tight-knit farming community. The seeds of strife were sown in late 1992, when the Highway 370 bridge opened to booming St. Charles County. Although the entire highway would not be completed until late 1996, Hazelwood officials could see the future and in 1995 moved quickly to seize the land and reap the rewards of annexation. But their efforts have met with resistance; some landowners have banded together to fight the development with the same determination they would a flood. Others have opted to pursue their own interests. Arguments over the proposed development have caused neighbors to hurl insults and family members to quit speaking with each other.

In essence, a state of siege has descended on the Missouri Bottoms in the past year, invading slowly like fog off the river, then rising over the bluffs to envelop the entire town. Many citizens feel betrayed by their local government. Overflow crowds protest at City Council meetings. The city reacts by hiring a public-relations firm. The developer joins the fray, bankrolling its own "grassroots" citizens' committee. Meanwhile, in the valley, attempts are made to drain a disputed wetland and unidentified surveyors rove undeterred across private property.

The roiling controversy boils down to one question: Should the citizens of Hazelwood, a suburban community of some 26,000 residents, have the right to vote on whether the city gives Tristar a $17.2 million tax subsidy to pay for the construction of a highway interchange and other infrastructure improvements at the site of its proposed private development?

Earlier this year, the municipality refused to certify petitions of an ad hoc group, the Yellow Ribbon Committee, that would have placed the issue on the ballot. Members of the committee, with the aid of a public-policy-law center, recently countered by suing the city to force a vote. That case and a separate lawsuit filed by three landowners in the affected area have halted the project.

Tristar, nevertheless, is forging ahead, lining up earthmovers on its property next to Highway 370. The display of heavy equipment adds to the angst of those living in the valley. Once the city allows industrial development to swallow the first bite of the agricultural land, they fear, it will only be a matter of time before the rest of this rich alluvial plain is devoured. They know that under the state's TIF law, a municipality can seize property through eminent domain if the developer and landowners can't agree on a sale price. Moreover, their mistrust is fed by the recollection that after the city of Hazelwood annexed the Missouri Bottoms in 1995, it started planning to develop the entire area, only scaling back the project to mollify public outrage.

During the meeting with landowners, Tristar vice president Lawrence R. Chapman Jr. leans back in his chair, laces his fingers together behind his head and delivers his pitch while the well-dressed attorney stands by to answer any legal questions that might arise. Chapman reassures the audience that Tristar has no intention of conducting any further development in the Missouri Bottoms. The public doesn't understand the benefits of the TIF law, Chapman says. If they understood its importance as an economic-development tool, citizens would support its use. "It doesn't surprise me that misinformation goes around," he adds. Then Chapman asks the property owners — who are already inextricably tied to sales agreements with Tristar — to take the next step by joining the company's legal challenge to the opponent's case. "It should be you who decides what you do with your property," he says. "I don't want to push anything down anybody's throat."

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