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.

After the meeting, Chapman maintains the same amiable disposition in a hallway conversation with an opponent of the development. His counterpart Rich Wurm, a longtime Missouri Bottoms dweller, is as rangy and bearded as Chapman is round and smooth-faced.

"I wouldn't take a million dollars for my house," Wurm says. "That's my story. Lived here all my life. We don't want to leave, and I will stay and I will die on that piece of ground. I will. I can't go anywhere. I'm 68 years old." Wurm adds, "I have a right. I don't tell my neighbors what they should do with their ground."

"I understand," says Chapman, who is wearing a pink monogrammed oxford shirt. "Don't disagree with you."

Rita and Rich Wurm outside their Missouri Bottoms home. "I wouldn't take a million dollars for my house," says Rich Wurm.
Jennifer Silverberg
Rita and Rich Wurm outside their Missouri Bottoms home. "I wouldn't take a million dollars for my house," says Rich Wurm.
TIF cheerleaders: Hazelwood Mayor David Farquharson and City Manager Ed Carlstrom
Jennifer Silverberg
TIF cheerleaders: Hazelwood Mayor David Farquharson and City Manager Ed Carlstrom

At Wurm's place, off Teson Road, workers are putting aluminum siding on the exterior of the small frame house. The home improvement is one sign of Wurm's resolution to stay. He and his wife, Rita, bought their 3-and-a-third-acre plot 40 years ago. They raised six children here. Photographs of their grandchildren line the wall above their living-room window, which faces in the direction of the proposed development.

It took the Wurms two-and-a-half years to build the house. It took even longer for them to acquire the land on which it sits. "We lived in the city on 19th Street, in an attic that I fixed up," says Wurm. "I made a bedroom and a kitchen out of it. We lived there for seven years to buy this piece of ground."

To make ends meet, the couple held down full-time jobs. He operated a service station on Howdershell Road and worked for a grocery chain. She worked at a bank. Each spring and summer, they still found time to set out more than 6,000 tomato plants and sell the produce. For a while, they also raised their own livestock.

"We didn't go to a subdivision and pick it up," says Rita Wurm of her home. "We built it. This is as much a part of us as our kids are. I worked all my life to keep it. It's nothing big, but it's mine. It would have been nice if TIF helped us out.

"(Instead) we've paid dearly, personally, for the privilege of being here and dying here, if I choose," she says. "I don't like the Gestapo state that's been created, where a group of 12 people (the TIF commission) can tell me, "Sorry, we want a hunk of concrete — you better leave.' That's wrong."

Her sentiments are shared by others in the Missouri Bottoms, where the Wurms are considered newcomers. Here the valley roads still bear the names of the farmers who till the soil. The French and Spanish came to this place early in the last century, followed by the Germans. They have stayed and courted and married and haggled and feuded and lived among each other for a long time. They have endured floods and droughts, and, with the turning of the seasons, they have planted and harvested together. Now their future is uncertain.

Under the state TIF law, the city of Hazelwood has deemed a good portion of the valley a "conservation" area. The statute defines such districts as "not yet blighted ... but (nevertheless) detrimental to the public health, safety, morals or welfare of the community." The city spent more than $45,000 on consultants to come to this conclusion.

Originally, Hazelwood had intended to develop 1,200 acres of the Missouri Bottoms. It had carved up the area into two redevelopment-project areas, known as RPA 1 and RPA 2. But the city changed its plans after residents organized the Yellow Ribbon Committee to campaign against the development. The group's yellow ribbons still festoon mail boxes along Teson Road in the area designated RPA 2.

As a result of the resistance movement, the Hazelwood TIF Commission recommended removing RPA 2 from consideration and reducing the scale of the development plan to approximately 700 acres in RPA 1, which lies next to Highway 370. Tristar, in turn, has plans to develop 450 acres of the area. There are fewer landowners at this location, and the developer already owns some of the property and has sales options on other parcels, making the development more feasible.

Residents of RPA 2 are still wary that their property is being eyed for future development, despite assurances from municipal officials to the contrary. "Don't be confused that this area (RPA 2) is included," says assistant city manager Craig Owens, pointing at a map of the Missouri Bottoms on his desk. "This area is not included. Not now. It hasn't been for a year-and-a-half."

As for RPA 1, Owens lauds the area as prime real estate, but also argues that the remaining redevelopment area needs a public subsidy to promote the city's economic growth. "TIF is a tool to make the project work," he says. Owens' college diplomas, which were bestowed earlier in the decade, hang on the wall of his office. On the opposite wall is an illustration of a tranquil nature scene. The young official has a different vision for the future of the Missouri Bottoms.

"This is the new hottest development corridor," says Owens. "This is the new Highway 40 out in West County. That's what it is. You look at what's happening along (Highway) 370 from beginning to end, it makes little sense, except for the infrastructure problems, that this (RPA 1) isn't developing as one of those very hot areas."

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