After the Deluge

Since the Flood of 93, Chesterfield boosters have used millions in public money to raise a levee and turn the bottomlands into a boomtown. But betting against the river is risky business.

There was no way the TIF commission was going to wait for a feasibility study to be finalized before it acted. Allan Sheppard, a former Chesterfield councilman, recalls when James Mello, the attorney for the CCDC and TIF commission, made a surprise appearance at a City Council meeting back in 1997. "He came at the invitation of the mayor, Nancy Greenwood, and spoke about what he called "TIF 101,' without it being on the agenda," says Sheppard. "Much to my chagrin, it helped to push it through, when I, for one, and others didn't want to see us subsidize the development of the Chesterfield floodplain."

Sheppard continues to question the efficacy of building up the levee to protect retail developments with the help of taxpayer dollars. "We need to use the free-market system down there rather than government subsidies," he says. "It's an absolutely stupid thing to do. This is a hydraulic engineer's pot of gold. It's the next best thing to moving the Gulf of Mexico somewhere else. They're building a hydraulic house of cards down there. The government should be smart enough to know that if something really goes wrong down there, the Wal-Marts and the rest of these folks, the Hiltons, they'll just write it off their taxes and just move on. They'll just leave skeletons down there and cut their losses."

Chesterfield Mayor Nancy Greenwood sees the development issue as a calculated risk taken by private investors. "Property owners have the right to sell their land, and people have the right to do with it what they want, as long as it falls within our zoning (ordinance). People who are building down there know that that is a floodplain. They know that this levee is going in," Greenwood says. "They feel confident of the protection that is there now. But there are no guarantees in life that I know of."

"We need to use the free-market system down there rather than government subsidies," says former Chesterfield Councilman Allan Sheppard.
Jennifer Silverberg
"We need to use the free-market system down there rather than government subsidies," says former Chesterfield Councilman Allan Sheppard.

One guarantee the city made good on was its pledge to the businessmen. "Right after the flood, the City Council made a commitment to the owners of the businesses that had been there," says Greenwood. "So we have followed through with that policy. There are levees being built all over this country, not just in Chesterfield, to protect those areas where there are people with jobs and businesses. You have the same thing in the city of St. Louis."

The development that has taken place in the Chesterfield Valley within a few short years has required rearranging of the landscape on an unprecedented scale. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that before the 1993 flood, more than 300 acres of wetlands remained on the landward side of the levee. But the Corps whittled away at those acres by repeatedly issuing permits under the Clean Water Act, allowing the wetlands to be filled in for development. The coup de grace came in late 1996, when the Corps issued the city of Chesterfield a blanket permit to destroy the last 68 acres of wetlands to accommodate developers.

The taking of the wetlands shows how the city, the levee district and the developers worked together to achieve their common goal.

Raising the levee requires millions of cubic yards of soil. To meet the demand, the levee district purchased 318 acres north of Highway 40, adjacent to the U.S. Ice Sports Complex. The district also agreed to buy dirt from private landowners to meet its needs. One way to view this might be that the levee district and the landowners who belong to it are acquiring dirt for $3.50-$4 a cubic yard from themselves. The city has already applied to the Corps to be paid back up to 65 percent of the cost, which amounts to more than $8.6 million.

Dredging on the levee district's land north of Highway 40 has turned the property into wasteland, but the plan is to eventually convert this "borrow site" into a manmade wetlands area and deed the property over to the city. This will satisfy the Corps' rule requiring wetland losses be mitigated. The city, which holds the blanket permit, is allowing developers who bulldoze wetlands to buy into its future wetlands-park site for $25,000 an acre, a small price to pay to avoid direct federal supervision.

Mike Geisel, director of the Chesterfield Public Works Department, says forming the wetlands-mitigation bank in cooperation with the levee district and the developers will be a vast improvement on the original wetlands, which were fragmented. "Rather than have each individual property owner go to the Corps and try to address the wetland issues related to an individual parcel down there, we took (control of) the 4,500-acre tract," says Geisel. "I think it was just a great deal of forward thinking to be ahead of the curve and deal with this as we did."

Michael Doster, a Chesterfield-based zoning attorney, agrees. "To me, it's been a great example of cooperation between business, government and the residents," says Doster. "Does it have its problems? Sure. But why people can't stand back and say this is a great story to be told is beyond me. I guess there's always going to be people who want to pick at it and be naysayers. But to me, it's a wonderful story of recreating and moving forward. Trying to cast development in a negative light is something that the media does."

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