Odd Ducks

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

"The Great Rivers Habitat Alliance played a major role in it," says Ted Heisel, senior law and policy coordinator for the coalition. "It was kind of tag-team. I'd say 90 percent of the issues we deal with, we tend to see very wealthy and powerful people lined up against us. I think it's a very welcome addition to our side that we have people like that interested in our issues. We've seen those kinds of people do have some sway over legislators and policymakers and even some regulatory agencies."

With one paid lobbyist, the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance flew under Jefferson City's radar screens.

"Great Rivers Habitat Alliance" doesn't ring a bell with Gary Markinson, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League. But he suspected something was up when the TIF ban kept popping up on various bills.

Geologist Nicholas Pinter warns that floodplain 
development is foolhardy.
Geologist Nicholas Pinter warns that floodplain development is foolhardy.

"I knew there was some clout behind this because they were sticking this amendment on bills up and down the line," recalls Markinson, who was tracking a bill about fire districts that ended up being the Christmas tree on which the TIF ban was hung. "I'd heard that this was done to protect some property that the Busch family owned."

The Great Rivers Habitat Alliance got a big assist from Anheuser-Busch. With time running out in the session, brewery lobbyist John Britton recalls getting a call from Adolphus Busch. "The reason Anheuser-Busch was interested was primarily because ... I think Adolphus Busch is the guy who has a farm out there," says Britton, who isn't familiar with the alliance. "That [bill] looked like the only vehicle around that was amendable to take care of the floodplain problem near [Highway] 370. What we did was just the mechanical stuff and everything to make sure it got to the House with the amendment on."

Earl L. Schlef, a lobbyist for the city of St. Charles, says state Senator Chuck Gross (R-St. Charles) made sure the amendment got through the Senate. Gross, who did not return a call, reported receiving a $575 contribution -- the maximum allowed under state law -- from the brewery on July 15. As a nonprofit corporation, the alliance itself is prohibited from contributing to campaigns. The IRS also limits the amount nonprofits can spend on lobbying.

Seeking to overturn the new law, the city of St. Charles sued the state last month, claiming that the bill was passed minutes after a constitutionally mandated deadline of 6 p.m. The city also claims that lawmakers violated the Missouri Constitution by inserting the amendment into a bill that had nothing to do with floodplain development. The attorney general's office is defending the lawsuit. Musick says the alliance may file an amicus brief.

Other cities in St. Charles County either have available land that's not in the floodplain or, like St. Peters, have already established TIF districts that can sustain development for the foreseeable future. "Why is that restriction put on St. Charles in St. Charles County and not in St. Louis County and not in the city of St. Louis and not in any other place in the state of Missouri?" Boon asks. "Why not make it a level playing field? If we can't do it, nobody else should be able to."

If the alliance gets its way, Boon will get her wish.

"We don't want to single out anybody," Busch says. "We just want it to stop."

Nestled in the heart of Ladue, the Deer Creek Club is an exclusive place, a bastion for bluebloods who want a private place for wedding receptions, birthday parties and luncheons.

Tonight, cars pass by the club's unmarked driveway. One by one, they reach a wrought-iron gate that guards the end of Log Cabin Lane, a curious name for a street lined with so many mansions. This isn't it. And so drivers turn around, eventually finding their way to the club built in the manner of a hunting lodge, with polished stone floors and rough-hewn beams supporting the high wooden ceiling.

Once inside, guests who've been invited to the alliance's second annual meeting are handed name tags and asked whether they care for a drink. Some appear at ease, chatting as if in familiar surroundings. Others can barely contain their awe.

Some are clad in coats and ties, others in sweaters and Dockers. A few are dressed in camouflage hunting garb, baseball caps and boots. The guests include landowners, officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri departments of Conservation and Natural Resources. Also present are representatives from private advocacy groups, including the Coalition for the Environment, the American Land Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

They are here to talk about transforming St. Charles County, which is 45 minutes away when traffic is light.

Alliance board members raise their hands as they're introduced by Musick, who acts as emcee. Peter von Gontard, Huntleigh city attorney and a founder of the silk-stocking firm Sandberg, Phoenix & von Gontard, can trace ties with the Busch family back to 1895, when his great-grandfather Baron Paul von Gontard, once a director of the Mercedes Benz & Manser Corporation, met and later married Clara Busch, daughter of brewery founder Adolphus Busch. Charles Hager is an executive at Hager Hinge Company, a privately held hardware manufacturer that employs nearly 1,000 people and generated an estimated $150 million in revenue in 2000, according to the St. Louis Business Journal. He's worried about a plan to expand St. Charles County's Smartt Airfield, which he fears will put jets amid ducks on his land that lies in a direct line to the runway.

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