Embracing Sprawl

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

Jun 28, 2000 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

Jerry Rombach, a former HBA official, sent Acock a letter on Sept. 14 that outlined the association's objections: "The draft master plan seeks to protect resources by limiting new development into certain areas and by greatly restricting any development that would be allowed," Rombach wrote. "Further, it seeks to empower residents and institutions with review and oversight authority over new development ... and worse case scenario, it provides a tool for stopping or needlessly delaying any development a citizen group may oppose." In a five-page critique that accompanied the letter, the HBA attacked the plan for its "negative tone" and claimed that the document impinged upon the "United States' free enterprise economy and democratic system of government."

Despite his group's efforts to quash the plan, HBA executive Patrick Sullivan now says that the association is neutral on the issue. Sullivan notes that Rombach, the HBA official who wrote the fiery missive, is no longer employed by the association. Lobbying against the proposal has been carried out solely at the behest of its Jefferson County members, Sullivan says. "The HBA of Greater St. Louis doesn't have an opinion," he says. "Nobody wants to see rampant, uncontrolled growth," Sullivan adds. "But the Jefferson County HBA has told the HBA of Greater St. Louis that the plan is too restrictive and will put the future of Jefferson County in a straitjacket."

The planners, however, felt as if they were the ones who had been hogtied. Two months before Rauls accepted the award from East-West Gateway, he ordered Acock to stop all public participation in the master-plan process.

Mitch Bair, a former Jefferson County planner, says the homebuilders acted to defend their carte blanche development privileges. "They didn't like the direction that the plan was going, (so) they went behind our backs to the County Commission and basically destroyed the whole process," Bair says. The consensus that had taken months to nurture was summarily destroyed, and in the aftermath, morale in the planning department plummeted. "I don't think they took us as professionals," says Bair, who left for a better-paying job with the city of Maryland Heights. "The planning department was kept out of the loop on a variety of issues." Normally, says Bair, planners act as the vanguard in tackling development issues, "but that's not how it occurred in Jefferson County."

Planning has always been a contentious issue in Jefferson County. The county planning-and-zoning ordinance was repealed in 1970 and not reimplemented entirely until 1991. The county has been operating under a master plan generated at that time.

Rauls, who formerly served as the county's public administrator, has his own vision of Jeffersonian democracy, and controlling growth by imposing new zoning restrictions is not a part of it. "I want Jefferson County to be a unique place to live," Raul says. "But I don't think you make it a unique place by having government come in and be a dictator over people. People think they can buy 5 acres down here and control the 500 acres next to them. If you want to control the 500 acres next to you -- buy it."

The upstarts in the county planning department are not the only ones promulgating the idea of limiting growth. Rauls places some of the blame on powerful forces beyond his jurisdiction. "It amazes me that the city of St. Louis and East-West Gateway and the (St. Louis) Post-Dispatch and The Riverfront Times always want to talk about regionalism, but their regionalism is anything within the (Interstate) 270 belt," Rauls says. "If there's any prosperity or growth outside of that, that's terrible.' Well, that's baloney."

David E. Hutchings, a member of the master-plan advisory panel and Democratic candidate for Jefferson County 1st District commissioner, says the turmoil is now having an effect on the county government's ability to carry out its day-to-day functions. "The ramifications of the commission's reluctance to adopt this master plan has delayed the planning-and-zoning commission from addressing as many development issues as they might normally. They don't have enough people to put together staff reports," Hutchings says.

"Commissioner Rauls waited until the whole process was over and then decided that the outcome wasn't what he was looking for, and so he decided to shelve the plan." The candidate finds it ironic that Rauls opposes zoning restrictions. "You know where Sam Rauls lives?" asks Hutchings. "In Raintree (Plantation). It's probably the most exclusive subdivision in the whole county, with guards at the gate, a golf course and a lake. You've got to know somebody just to get on the damn property. He doesn't care about the rest of the county, because no matter how developed it gets, he's going to have the same view."

Related links:

Jefferson County 1st District candidate David Hutchings' web page:

East-West Gateway Coordinating Council recognizes Jefferson County's master plan:

Jefferson County Department of Land Use, Development and Code Enforcement: