Embracing Sprawl

Jefferson County elected officials ditch an award-winning master plan in favor of unbridled residential development

It must have been an awkward moment for Sam Rauls, standing behind the podium, searching for words to convey his appreciation. The presiding commissioner of Jefferson County had trekked to downtown St. Louis from the county seat of Hillsboro last November to receive an award from the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, the regional planning agency.

Luncheon guests at the Marriott Pavilion Hotel that afternoon represented Rauls' peers. They had come to the annual affair to applaud the good works of a community activist, an academic researcher and municipal officials. Kudos were bestowed with requisite pomp under the soft glow of chandeliers in a thickly carpeted banquet room awash with white tablecloths. Coffee had been poured and wineglasses emptied by the time audience members turned in their seats to watch Rauls accept the Lewis & Clark Trailblazer Award. Jefferson County was being recognized for its two-year effort to establish a 20-year master plan to guide future development. A snapshot of the occasion shows John H. Acock Jr., the county's chief planner, standing tall behind his boss.

The photo of the award presentation would seem to indicate that a cooperative effort is afoot in Jefferson County to devise a comprehensive growth-management plan capable of steering public-policy decisions into the 21st century. But that is not the case. Instead, Rauls, who has the backing of the other two county commissioners, has taken the side of the Home Builders Association of Greater St. Louis (HBA). The homebuilders oppose the plan out of fear that it will limit their freedom to construct high-density residential subdivisions in much of the county.

Sam Rauls, Jefferson County presiding commissioner: "That's not the kind of plans we need here in the Midwest, because we don't have the same values as they do on the East Coast or the West Coast."
Jennifer Silverberg
Sam Rauls, Jefferson County presiding commissioner: "That's not the kind of plans we need here in the Midwest, because we don't have the same values as they do on the East Coast or the West Coast."
John H. Acock Jr., Jefferson County planning director: "A lot of people said, 'We don’t want to look like St. Charles. We don't want that kind of sprawl that they have out there.'"
Jennifer Silverberg
John H. Acock Jr., Jefferson County planning director: "A lot of people said, 'We don’t want to look like St. Charles. We don't want that kind of sprawl that they have out there.'"

Rauls' attempts to kill the proposal have put him in direct conflict with Acock and the county planning department, which has lost three of its five planners since the controversy ensued last year. Rauls' response to the impasse has been to accuse his chief planner of introducing foreign ideas into Jefferson County.

"John Acock wants to institute plans that are instituted in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Portland, Ore.," says Rauls. "That's not the kind of plans we need here in the Midwest, because we don't have the same values as they do on the East Coast or the West Coast."

To Acock, it's not a matter of values but pragmatism. "What's happening in those regions is what's happening nationally in the planning arena," he says. "Those regions are beginning to realize that counties need to start managing growth and taking control of the infrastructure. We're not trying to duplicate what they're doing, because no two areas are alike. We're trying to manage growth in Jefferson County."

St. Louisans have long considered Jefferson County a haven for their outdoor activities: swimming at Morse Mill in the summer, taking a leisurely drive down Highway 21 in the fall. Some of the old clubhouses and resorts have survived, but increasingly the sylvan valleys and hilltops are giving way to subdivisions, strip malls and convenience stores. Over the past 30 years, the county's population has risen by a staggering 90 percent. The total now stands at about 200,000, and it is expected to increase by another 50,000 by 2020. Jefferson County's master plan seeks to mitigate the effects of this urban sprawl.

Tailoring the plan to fit the county's development needs involved an exhaustive process of public participation. Beginning in September 1998, residents were invited to a series of three meetings held at seven locations throughout the county. The county planners put in an estimated 1,500 hours of overtime. More than 700 people attended. From those public forums, delegates were selected to be a part of an advisory panel that further refined the plan. The advisory group also included small businessmen, municipal officials, farmers, environmentalists, developers and homebuilders. A total of 70 people took part. They met at night and on weekends for nine months, with focus groups zeroing in on such concerns as housing, transportation, sewage and water, social services, and growth and development.

The advisory panel ultimately decided that the master plan should restrict development of apartments, condominiums and houses on parcels of less than 1 acre to designated areas with existing infrastructure. These "suburban growth" zones generally follow the transportation corridors along Interstate 55 and Highway 30. Larger towns in the county are also slated for significant development. Under the proposal, the remaining two-thirds of the county would be protected from overdevelopment by a requirement of a minimum 5-acre lot for each new single-family residence. Even with these restrictions, the master plan provides 220 percent more land for development than is anticipated to be required to accommodate the estimated population increase. The reason for managing the growth is twofold: to preserve the natural assets of the county and avoid unnecessary tax burdens brought on by the construction of subdivisions in isolated areas that will need major public-works projects to adequately sustain them.

The views of residents were ultimately incorporated into a 145-page draft published in February. On May 31, the Jefferson County planning and zoning board voted 7-2 in favor of the plan and passed its recommendation to the county commissioners. But commissioners Rauls, Ron Casey and Charlie Heisler, all Democrats, have vowed to reject the proposal. The commissioners initially expressed their disapproval last fall, after the HBA began lobbying to defeat the measure.

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