Odd Ducks

The fight to preserve St. Charles County floodplains makes for some strange bedfellows

"I'm not going to do that anymore," he says. "I think it's irresponsible. I now understand what can happen ... in even some of the best-protected floodplain areas of St. Louis County and St. Charles County. I think it's reckless. I'm not just stopping my own development, I'm stopping my construction company and my painting company from getting any business out in those areas."

Musick owns about 330 acres of the St. Charles County floodplain with several partners, including Adolphus Busch IV, a friend and occasional business partner in such ventures as MetaPhore Pharmaceuticals, an Overland-based drug company.

All told, duck clubs consume about 25,000 acres of St. Charles County floodplain, nearly half of the proposed wildlife refuge. Musick can't recall what he paid when he bought into his first club back in 1985 -- he guesses something less than $1,000 per acre. Now, an acre in the same area goes for between $3,000 and $4,000, even though it's prone to flooding.

Commercial development in floodplain business parks 
is flourishing a mile or so from skies dotted with 
Commercial development in floodplain business parks is flourishing a mile or so from skies dotted with ducks.
An aerial view of the flood of 1993. Some scientists 
say subsequent development could result in a more 
devastating flood in the future.
RFT File
An aerial view of the flood of 1993. Some scientists say subsequent development could result in a more devastating flood in the future.

Land elsewhere in the floodplain is worth much more.

Thanks to the completion of Highway 370 in 1996, development near the duck clubs has skyrocketed. Municipalities in the state's fastest-growing county see dollar signs.

St. Peters has been the most ambitious. By an overwhelming margin, city voters two years ago approved a $35 million bond issue to purchase 1,600 acres and build a levee to protect it from the Mississippi River, which inundated the property nine years ago. Exactly what will be built once the levee goes up hasn't been decided. Mayor Tom Brown, who did not return phone calls, has talked about everything from warehouses to office buildings to, at one point earlier this year, a new stadium for the St. Louis Cardinals.

In the city of St. Charles, economic-development director Nadine Boon raves about the Fountain Lakes Commerce Center, a 472-acre business park, and Elm Point Business Park, which is nearly 300 acres. Land has been elevated by as much as eight feet through a plan of scooping out artificial lakes and dumping the dirt onto the floodplain. Since 1995, the business parks have attracted such companies as Coca-Cola, Atlas Van Lines and Cardinal Health Care.

In Fountain Lakes alone, more than two million square feet of construction has absorbed 130 acres since the 1993 flood. At full build-out, Fountain Lakes will provide 4,000 jobs, Boon predicts, and bring $300 million in private investment into the city.

It's all perfectly safe, Boon insists, even though the sites were flooded nine years ago. Property in Elm Point has been elevated above the 100-year-flood level -- the threshold for development as established by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- and Fountain Lakes is set above the 500-year-flood level. Even a big flood like the one in 1993 isn't a concern. "It would be high and dry," she says.

Elm Point and Fountain Lakes could be full in five years, and when that happens, the city would likely gobble up adjacent floodplain. Aside from a few isolated parcels of twenty-or-so acres, there aren't any other vacant spots. "The 370 corridor is St. Charles' only space for business parks of any size," Boon says.

But Boon may never see the corridor developed.

Adolphus Busch IV and his buddies didn't do anything when malls sprang up in St. Louis County on land that was a lake in 1993. They didn't make a peep when Highway 370 was built, bringing easy access to undeveloped floodplains in the state's fastest-growing county.

Now, they warn of dire consequences if another flood comes.

"When they put 370 in, we thought, 'Well, they're putting a road there -- it's not a levee,'" Busch says. "What really set us off was the development off of 370. This one hit home. You know so many people who own so much land there."

This leaves the alliance open to charges of self-interest.

In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, Mayor Brown of St. Peters has dismissed the group as a bunch of crazy duck hunters from Ladue who want to protect their land at the expense of economic development. Musick acknowledges that the alliance began as a case of NIMBYism but says that it shouldn't be held against him or other members.

"Our knowledge of the problem came as a result of the fact that we're all duck hunters and we own property out there -- there isn't any way around that," Musick says. "This is a lot bigger than that now. This isn't about our duck clubs. We could all get together and buy up property just around the duck clubs and protect ourselves and save ourselves a hell of a lot of effort, time, money and worry.

"It's about the entire floodplain that stretches all around the St. Louis metropolitan area."

Boon, the St. Charles economic-development official, isn't impressed by such save-the-world statements.

"They are very passionate and very evangelistic," she says. "I haven't really pursued them, and they haven't pursued me. They've condemned me -- they've condemned what we've done, so I don't pursue talking to them. They're going to say a whole bunch of emotional things."

But politicians are starting to listen.

In the waning moments of this year's legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill banning tax-increment financing on floodplains in St. Charles County as of June 30, 2003, effectively limiting commercial development to existing TIF districts. The Great Rivers Habitat Alliance and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment claim credit for helping pass the bill.

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