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

Despite the fact that the company's 125 acres south of the park were now sealed within the final mitigation package as a proposed wetland habitat, in September 1995 — a full five months after the record of decision was issued — the company petitioned Maryland Heights to construct a golf course on the land, which already contained the driving range and miniature golf course run by Hale Irwin's company.

The Maryland Heights City Council approved the company's request. City Administrator Mark Levin says the company first applied for a change of zoning with the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, which then sent the plans to the full City Council for final approval. "The petitioner, the owner of the property, had a right to do that," Levin says. "It was still his land, and the city planning commission approved it, found that what was being proposed was in conformity to the city's comprehensive plan, made a recommendation to the City Council, and the City Council approved it.

"The only way to have prevented that, I suppose, was for the state to have purchased the land right then. To ask a property owner not to develop his or her land on the promise of "Later we might do something,' well, there's no obligation of anyone to do that," Levin says.

Maryland Heights Mayor Michael O'Brien says he can't remember specifically whether back in 1995 the City Council questioned whether an approval of a golf-course development would interfere with the state's plan to buy the property. "I don't think that land had actually been purchased from Weber by the state, so I guess back in '95 it wasn't an issue. It was still under private ownership, so I would assume it was handled like any other private development — it would go through all the city planning and zoning, and the approval or disapproval would be based just on the merits of the project alone.

In all, the state of Missouri has acquired 24 properties from private landowners — most of it farmland — to mitigate the damage Page Avenue would cause to Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park. Other properties include a 41.8-acre parcel acquired from Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District and a railroad easement.

According to records supplied by MoDOT and verified with the St. Louis County Recorder of Deeds, the state paid MSD and private landowners other than Fred Weber an average of $15,517 per acre. Fred Weber, by comparison, received $26,287 per acre.

One of the landowners, Harriet Byington, says she believes she received a fair deal for the 11 acres she sold to the state for $7,207 per acre. "The process went very smoothly, and we're satisfied with what we got," she says. Another seller, who asked not to be identified, said that his family could never be compensated fairly for the farmland the state bought from him through condemnation proceedings. "They cannot put a price tag on your livelihood," he says. Neither property owner was familiar with the prices paid to Fred Weber or other landowners.

Pete Donovan, MoDOT legal counsel, says the state paid fair market value for the properties. "Generally speaking, a lot of things can affect the fair market value," Donovan says. "For example, one property may have utilities while the property across the street might not. One property might have topography problems, whereas another might not. One area might be in a floodplain; another might not. Two pieces of property might be right next to each other but have different fair market values."

MoDOT won't release its appraisals on the properties, but in response to an inquiry about the different purchase prices, MoDOT Director of Project Development Bob Sfreddo last week sent The Riverfront Times a letter stating that the Fred Weber property was "valued at $16,500 per acre but it had over $1,200,000 in improvements."

Despite the 1994 Park Service report, which valued the land south of the park at $1.8 million, Sfreddo says subsequent improvements to the nearby levee helped boost the value of all the property in the area. By the time MoDOT got around to buying Fred Weber's property in 1997, its value had increased significantly. "We looked at comparable sales at the time, and the land appreciated quite a bit, so we went ahead and settled with Weber on that basis," Sfreddo says.

The profitable sale of the company's property south of the park for $3.3 million did not signal the end of its attempts to build a golf course. While Fred Weber was negotiating the sale with MoDOT, it was also assembling land for another golf course near the intersection of Creve Coeur Mill and Prichard Farm roads, near the northeast corner of Creve Coeur Park.

In 1996, Fred Weber, which already owned a 112-acre parcel in the area, bought a 13-acre lot on Prichard Farm Road for $200,000 from Andrew and Edward Baur, major St. Louis-area developers. Twelve days later, the company acquired an adjacent parcel that had been sold by Prichard Farm Properties for $900,000.

On July 17, 1996, Weber applied to the Maryland Heights City Planning Commission to build another golf course on this land — the 112 acres bought in 1992 and the parcels bought later on Prichard Farm Road. The planning commission and later the Maryland Heights City Council approved.

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