GREEN ACRES

How the Page Avenue extension has been good for influential road-builder Fred Weber Inc. -- through construction contracts, profitable land sales and a sweet deal with St. Louis County to expand its golf course

To get a table at Limestone's Bar & Grille at lunchtime, go early. Within 20 minutes of noon, every seat in the spacious, dark-paneled restaurant is filled with well-dressed businessmen, politicians and other St. Louis-area movers and shakers.

As part of the Crystal Springs Quarry Golf Club, the restaurant offers a properly playful lunch menu of omelettes, create-your-own burgers and colorful pastas in white sauce, though anemia sets in during the insufferably long wait. Fortunately, the steady stream of golfers and high-powered customers is stimulating enough to overshadow the culinary downtime, and besides, the patrons are the kind of people who can afford long lunches. Order salad anyway — it's quick.

The club's nine-hole course is equal in drawing power to the restaurant, with lush bluegrass fairways and rocky rolling hills that belong on a postcard. In fact, by anyone's standards, the Crystal Springs club, located at Prichard Farm and Creve Coeur Mill roads in Maryland Heights, was a success from its first day of operation in 1997.

Owned by the state's largest road contractor, Fred Weber Inc., the club won early accolades for its flaky grilled salmon and its par 3's and 5's, even garnering a nod from St. Louis Post-Dispatch gossip columnist Jerry Berger, who noted that the club was "fast becoming the home of our town's glam crowd." Indeed, a small country could scrape by on the value of the luxury cars moored in the parking lot on any given weekday morning. The golf course is open to the public — so for $25 and with proper attire (collared shirts and no denim), anyone can be seen with our town's glam crowd.

This July, the club celebrated the groundbreaking of a nine-hole expansion that will double its size. The mood was self-congratulatory, and understandably so, because most of the hazards that could have sabotaged the project had long been cleared by the time Fred Weber announced the additional back nine. In fact, at the time Crystal Springs first opened its doors in 1997, Fred Weber's own heavy construction equipment was less than a mile to the south, moving earth for the road project that made this all possible — the extension of Page Avenue as a 10-lane highway through Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park and across the Missouri River into St. Charles County, a project estimated to cost between $500 million and $1 billion.

The history of Fred Weber's golf course spans the past decade and is chained to the controversial expressway project, link for link. It is a history that details free-market transactions — how land was bought, developed and sold for a profit — and shows how, with a little foresight and a lot of muscle, public money can be used to leverage private profit.

The evolution of the golf course began in a different decade and at a different location, so the record of successive land purchases and sales reads a bit like a lesson in advanced plate tectonics:

In 1989, while the Missouri Highway and Transportation Department (later renamed the Missouri Department of Transportation, or MoDOT) is busy finalizing route plans for the Page Avenue extension, Fred Weber begins buying land around Creve Coeur Park.

A year later, the state picks a preferred route for the Page Avenue extension and identifies large chunks of land north and south of the park that it must buy to mitigate the damage the new highway would cause to the park. By 1992, Fred Weber has assembled a 125-acre chunk south of the park, paying a total of $568,729. The company operates a small driving range and a miniature-golf course on the property.

In 1995, Fred Weber asks Maryland Heights officials for permission to add a nine-hole golf course on its land south of the park — even though the property had been slated a year earlier for purchase by the state for wetlands development. The Maryland Heights City Council approves the request, but the golf course is never built.

That same year, the state buys — from private owners — property adjacent to Fred Weber's 125-acre parcel but does not buy Fred Weber's property. In all, the state buys more than 1,000 acres from other property owners for mitigation, spending about $20 million. The mitigation land is turned over to St. Louis County for new parkland.

In 1997, the state buys the 125 acres from Fred Weber for $3.3 million — the single most expensive purchase of mitigation land by the state.

Meanwhile, Fred Weber assembles property near the northeastern corner of the park and — with approval from Maryland Heights — builds the nine-hole Crystal Springs golf course. This year, the St. Louis County Council, at the urging of County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall, approved a lucrative 30-year lease of 166 acres of new parkland to Fred Weber, allowing the company to expand its private, profitable golf course to 18 holes. In exchange for the company's pledge to make $2 million in improvements to the park, Fred Weber pays no rent and no property taxes on the county land.

These land deals, which suggest preferential treatment, raise several questions: Why did the state, which began buying mitigation land in 1995, wait two years before acquiring Fred Weber's property south of the park? Why did the company receive more compensation per acre than any other owner of planned mitigation land? Why did Maryland Heights officials, knowing that the property south of the park was in an area designated for wetlands development, approve Fred Weber's plan for a nine-hole golf course? Why did the county agree to the long-term lease of park property to Fred Weber?

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