McManus still waiting for county OK to open

The furor over McManus Construction’s move from Affton to Oakville seemed to end months ago, but a year after initially filing for rezoning, the company has not yet been approved to officially open operations at its new site.

The move initially was held up by 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, who cited traffic concerns with the new site at the former Tee Time Family Fun Center, 4631 Lemay Ferry Road. As months went by, the councilman grew concerned about how the company planned to store salt.

McManus wanted to move to expand his business, which focuses on construction in the warmer months and snow-plowing and snow removal equipment sales and repair in the colder months.

He planned to hire more employees since he would have a larger space to put them at Tee Time. But as months went by, McManus was forced to lay off employees and store his business furniture in trailers since he had already sold his former Affton location to another company.

Altogether, McManus said the delays cost him more than $250,000 in legal fees and lost revenue and cost south county 13 jobs.

He initially planned to move all his employees to Tee Time and hire four more people, but those plans have been dashed.

Instead, he had to lay off four employees, and five employees left rather than risk losing their jobs later. He can’t hire new people in those positions until he has a place to officially operate his business.

The battle seemed to come to a peaceful end after Trakas, despite concerns about how the company would store salt, allowed the zoning to move forward and the council eventually approved the plan.

“After it got approved through the County Council, everybody thinks we’re in there and everything’s hunky dory,” McManus said. “But we’re not — a year later.”

McManus signed the contract to buy Tee Time in October 2016. More than a year later, the county continues to drag its feet on final approval of the site plan and on issuing building and occupancy permits for the business, he said. The process is currently in revisions on the site plan. But even before McManus could make the latest changes, the county official who asked for them warned McManus that more changes are likely coming in the future.

“Additional comments may be forthcoming,” the planner noted in the request for more changes.

But that is how the county process works, county Land Use Manager Gail Choate said. The typical process involves representatives of the planning, public works and transportation departments making recommendations for changes and reviewing those changes once the applicant’s designer submits them again, then starting the whole process again as long as it takes, she said.

“There’s nothing extraordinary about him or his site plan,” Choate said. “We treat everybody the same.”

McManus blames Trakas for creating an environment where county workers feel they have to scrutinize McManus beyond what they do for other businesses or risk losing their jobs. Some employees have told him as much, he said.

But Trakas said he applies the same strict scrutiny he showed McManus to every zoning application.

“This project got no more scrutiny than any proposed zoning application gets from me, from anyone,” Trakas said. “This type of scrutiny has been applied to everybody.

“Rob McManus is no special case.”

And if Trakas hadn’t looked at McManus’ zoning application so closely, he would have missed that the original application didn’t outline how the company would store salt. McManus said it was just an oversight and that it should have been obvious that a snow-removal company would be storing salt.

If Trakas hadn’t held up the rezoning for so long, the company would be fully operating by now even with other county delays, McManus said.

“If we hadn’t lost nine months battling Ernie, we’d be done and in there,” McManus said. “He ran as a Republican, but in my opinion, you’re Republican, you’re pro-business. He’s doing everything he can to run businesses out of south county.”

That’s why McManus has loaned Tee Time to serve as the headquarters for a petition drive to recall Trakas, the Voices of District 6.

But Trakas counters that things could have gone differently if McManus had been more up-front with his plans for the site.

“I don’t see that as my fault, and I don’t know that he’s done this in a completely buttoned-up way,” Trakas said of the lost jobs. “If this thing has gone on longer than it should have, I think the responsibility rests at his feet. His application was deficient, plain and simple. It’s been proven.”

The root of the dispute seems to have started in a phone call McManus made to Trakas a week or two before Christmas last year, before Trakas took office Jan. 1. McManus had already applied for the rezoning and was set to apply again after the county Planning Commission had rejected his first bid for industrial zoning. Since Trakas hadn’t yet taken office, McManus called the incoming councilman on his cell phone.

But Trakas viewed the call as an “unnecessary and premature” overreach because the planning panel had not yet discussed McManus’ new zoning application.

“I don’t feel calling my personal cell number during the Christmas holidays is even remotely appropriate while I’m at home,” he said. “I’m not even in office yet. I think there’s a protocol that should be followed, and it wasn’t. Once I take office, then yes, I’m your councilman by all means. I’m happy to talk with you and meet with you and did so. But I just felt that was overreach.”

It was the first indication that something wasn’t right with the zoning request, Trakas said.

Looking back, McManus also sees the call as a turning point. What started as a friendly chat to let Trakas know about the rezoning ended on a sour note, he said.

“He said, ‘That’s in my backyard, and I don’t want another construction company in my backyard,’ and he didn’t think he would be for it,” McManus said.

At the planning panel’s public hearing a month later, Trakas was the only member of the public to raise his hand in opposition to McManus’ request.