Developer meets with MFPD board about proposed apartment complex

County officials decline to postpone public hearing on proposal

At the Oct. 5 Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors meeting, from left, board Secretary Ed Ryan, Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman, look at plans for a new apartment complex with, from left, MFPD Chief Brian Hendricks, Fire Marshal Ed Berkel, Mike Falkner of J.H. Berra and resident Bill Kramper.

At the Oct. 5 Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors meeting, from left, board Secretary Ed Ryan, Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman, look at plans for a new apartment complex with, from left, MFPD Chief Brian Hendricks, Fire Marshal Ed Berkel, Mike Falkner of J.H. Berra and resident Bill Kramper.

By Gloria Lloyd

An Oakville-based developer hoping to build a 232-unit apartment complex along Tesson Ferry Road met with Mehlville Fire Protection District officials last week, but nearby residents opposed to the project still see public safety as a problem.

The county Planning Commission was slated to hold a public hearing on the project Monday night — after the Call went to press.

In advance of the hearing, representatives of J.H. Berra attended the Oct. 5 MFPD Board of Directors meeting to talk to the board and Chief Brian Hendricks, who had sent a letter asking county officials to delay the hearing for a month so they could examine the project.

In reply, acting Director of Planning Gail Choate said she would not delay the hearing since no decisions would be made this week, and the planning panel will not vote until November.

Opposed by thousands of neighbors who have submitted a petition against the project, the apartments were unanimously approved by the Planning Commission this summer.

The project divided the County Council 4-3 until the neighbors’ attorney, Stan Wallach, contended that the county had violated its own ordinances with the zoning by not reverting the land from R-6 multi-family residential zoning back to its original R-2 single-family zoning when a nursing home fell through in 2010.

The meeting occurred roughly 12 hours before the MFPD responded to the scene of the killing of St. Louis County Police Officer Blake Snyder just blocks from MFPD headquarters in Green Park.

After residents brought their safety concerns to the board, MFPD officials sent a letter to acting Director of Planning Gail Choate to let her know that, at first glance, the project does not appear to meet fire code.

MFPD officials had difficulty “chasing” plans to look at the project, Hendricks said.

Representing J.H. Berra, Mike Falkner and attorney Ed Griesedieck pointed out that they had already taken into account many of those concerns, but residents disputed that and said the new plans the developer presented had never been shown at a county meeting.

Board Chairman Aaron Hilmer noted that in the more than a decade that he, board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and board Secretary Ed Ryan have served on the fire board, they have never before gotten involved in a development issue.

However, residents brought it to the fire board because they felt 6th District County Councilman Kevin O’Leary, D-Oakville, is ignoring their concerns.

“For whatever reason, it seems like there’s been a breakdown in the county … The councilman or councilperson typically acts as a liaison or mediator between the developer and the residents to hash a lot of these issues out,” Hilmer said. “And for some reason, that’s not going on here.

“Now that’s not our problem, but it’s what brought it to us … Based on the limited information we could see, the fire chief and fire marshal had some concerns, which then concerned us.”

For more than 30 minutes, the board and Hendricks gathered around large blowup plans that Berra brought for them to examine, and Hilmer said many of the board’s concerns were addressed in the more detailed plans.

Residents who live along Bauer and Keller roads are concerned about how ambulances will be able to reach them if too much traffic from the development stacks up on the only way into and out of their houses.

The plans shown to the fire board depict a second turn lane on Bauer Road extending from Tesson Ferry to Tammy Kay. The county approval for the project only refers to general widening of the road, without specifying what the widening would be.

But previous plans only showed the new lane as 3.5 car lengths, said neighbor Bill Hogan.

He asked for a letter to the county requesting the lane be included as shown in the blowup plans, without being dropped later.

“We have no voice in the process,” Hogan told the fire board. “All that we want is something that says the fire department wants an extra lane there and assure us that’s a non-negotiable thing for our safety.”

Hogan and neighbor Bill Kramper were unhappy with the developers’ presentation, since they believed it was different than what they had previously seen at county meetings, and with fire board members’ receptiveness to it.

But the reason the presentation answered most of their questions, fire board members said, is that they have limited power over developments.

“I would have walked out with the impression that you’re a go,” Hogan said after the developers left.

“I’ll just be quite frank — I feel for you guys,” Hilmer said. “Why you have this dereliction of duty by this councilman, I have zero idea … Since you guys came in here, I said I’ve never seen people get so screwed over by someone. I mean, at least just punt the issue until a successor’s elected and then go from there. But whatever.

“I think what it really comes down to, the power of the fire district is what we can do inside the development, which I know you’re not interested in, but it sounds like that’s what our power is. We’ve never, ever been involved with anything beyond that. I mean, (Fire Marshal) Ed Berkel’s got more institutional knowledge than most fire marshals have forgotten,” the board chairman added.

After talking with Berkel, Hendricks said his key question is whether the MFPD has any standing to question the county on developments, even if it might impact public safety.

“I can say as the fire chief, and Chief Berkel can say as the fire marshal, ‘I don’t like it,’ but if the county says, ‘Sorry,’ then … I would come to the board and say, ‘Board, this is my concern,'” Hendricks said. “The board would then petition the county, but the question is if the county says you don’t have jurisdiction or no statutory authority to govern that roadway …”

“When it comes to safety, it might not be in hard writing, but there’s still some limited authority that we can put our foot down and say, we don’t buy this,” said Ryan, adding that the developer did not leave their plans with the MFPD to examine further.

At Stegman’s suggestion, Choate is set to meet with Hendricks and Berkel so they can outline the public safety concerns residents have about the complex, but the powers of the fire district are otherwise limited when it comes to development, officials said.

“I want to be fair and I want to be open with you,” Hendricks said to Hogan. “We are going to take a look at this from a neutral position of our apparatus, what we need to do to provide life safety and fire safety to the residents down Bauer Road.”

“I don’t want to put you guys in the middle of it — all I’m concerned about is getting us safe service, that’s it,” Hogan told the board.

“We’re on it,” Hilmer said.