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 Corps, which has jurisdiction over wetlands, will hold an informational meeting on the Tristar proposal from 2-8 p.m. Aug. 25 at Hazelwood City Hall. A spokesman for the Corps says there is little chance that a public hearing will be held, however. In the past, the agency has routinely granted requisite permits for developers to build in the floodplains of St. Louis County, even though the projects can be interpreted as being in violation of the Section 404 of the U.S. Clean Water Act. Under the federal law, non-water-dependent projects are supposed to be located outside the floodplain if any alternative location exists.

In this instance, the state TIF law is promoting the development of a floodplain, which counteracts provisions of the Clean Water Act that seek to place limits on such projects. The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is on record as being opposed to further floodplain development, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is specifically opposed to the Tristar proposal.

"They (the Corps) have to show that these people have absolutely no alternative but to build this in this environmentally sensitive area," says Rick Hansen, an agent for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Cumulatively, there has been little regard on how you add all this stuff up with the casinos and Page Avenue and the Howard Bend levee district and development in St. Charles County," says Hansen. "Is this stuff getting out of hand?"

Jennifer Silverberg
The Earth City headquarters of Tristar and Thomas Construction
Jennifer Silverberg
The Earth City headquarters of Tristar and Thomas Construction

From Hansen's vantage point, he has to wonder just whose hands are at work. On a visit to the development site earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife agent observed waterfowl in a wetland that had been designated as cropland. An interagency dispute developed over whether to change the designation. Since then the argument has become a moot point, in part because someone has attempted to pull the plug on this particular wetlands debate by digging a ditch approximately 15 feet wide and 3 feet deep.

After the meeting with property owners at the Tristar offices, Chapman muses over the future of the Park 370 development and the state's TIF law. "The bottom line is that the property in and of itself cannot afford to pay for certain public infrastructure work," he says. "Once you put an interchange in, the county wants all of its roads upgraded for the traffic it will handle. Bridgeton wants all of its roads upgraded for the traffic it will handle. You've got property that doesn't have any kind of utility or street system to be able to attract people in who want to build buildings, buildings like we have in Earth City, and I've been here for 10 years.

"You know, the TIF laws — right, wrong or indifferent — probably have been abused. I personally don't think we're doing it in this case, but it's not a matter of individual municipalities, because it's a state constitutional issue. It needs to be changed by our Legislature. That's where these energies need to be focused. Is the TIF legislation perfect? Hell, no. Will it ever be perfect? Probably not. Will it always change? I'm sure of it. It's like everything else. You put something in place that you think is a good tool. Someone figures out how to abuse the tool. You try to fix the tool. The tool gets abused. You fix the tool or you eliminate the tool."

Farmers in the Missouri Bottoms, like farmers elsewhere, are accustomed to using different kinds of tools: plows, tractors, combines. But the argument in Hazelwood over TIF has mandated that the people who till the ground now use implements of another kind. Under the August sun, a farmer sits on the tailgate of his pickup truck as his barefoot daughters play nearby. His wife interrupts his conversation, beckoning him to take refuge in the shade of the front porch, but he ignores her plea. His callused hands continue to thumb through a stack of legal papers, which chronicle the bitter dispute that is now being fought out in the courts. He mentions that depositions of Hazelwood city officials are being taken on this day, and he speaks with disdain of one of his neighbors. The threat of development has already changed something here; a certain fragile trust has been violated, and it may never be mended. One way or the other, things in the Missouri Bottoms will never be the same.

From Rita Wurm's perspective, things that aren't broke don't need fixing. "We're not standing in the way of progress," she says. "We're just trying to preserve a way of life. They talk about all their tax dollars and everything, (that) there have to be these redevelopment projects to compete with the communities around us. Why do we have to compete? The more built up and commercialized it becomes, the more people are saying, "This isn't for me.' Why can't they just let it be a community where there is still green space, where you can still take your children to watch the wild geese?"

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