Sunset Hills Mayor Bill Nolan is forming a task force to study the residential redevelopment of Court Drive and West Watson Road west of South Lindbergh Boulevard.
Nolan decided to establish the task force after the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted last week to reject an amendment to change the city’s comprehensive plan to provide for commercial and attached-unit residential uses of the area, which was devastated by the New Year’s Eve tornado that swept through Sunset Hills.
The proposed amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan would have encompassed all property on Court Drive not already designated for commercial use, the first six properties along the north side of West Watson Road west of South Lindbergh Blvd. and 3851 and 3863 S. Lindbergh Blvd.
More than 20 people addressed the Planning and Zoning Commission during a June 1 public hearing with the vast majority of speakers opposed to changing the comprehensive plan. After a resolution to approve the amendment to the comprehensive plan failed for lack of a motion, the commission voted 7-1 to deny the proposed changes to the plan.
Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Rodney Stecher cast the dissenting vote while commission member John Littlefield, a former Ward 2 alderman, abstained.
Absent were commission members Thomas Henkle and Robert Robben.
Regarding his abstention, Littlefield said earlier during the meeting, “I want to make it plain that I’m not voting tonight because I am supposedly a part owner in a piece of property there.”
Stecher said, “… Mr. Littlefield told me several days ago that he did not intend to vote …”
Noting that some of the speakers did not voice any objections to commercial development on Lindbergh, Littlefield later asked when a modified proposal could be brought forth.
City Engineer Anne Lamitola told him, “At any time, anyone can call for a public hearing to discuss the comprehensive plan.”
Of Court Drive and West Watson Road west of South Lindbergh, Nolan told the Call he had “visualized a commercial area properly bermed and fenced and tree-lined behind them and an entrance to Court coming off of West Watson.”
“The driver from day one was what do we do to help the people who have had their entire lives wiped out and destroyed — upset, whatever your choice of words is. So the best possible outcome financially for the people whose homes were destroyed would be in the front end (of the area) to sell it commercially. Selling their lots by the square foot would benefit them financially. And in the back portion (of the area), if they were sold to a use that was more dense, then the value of the property increases,” the mayor said.
“There were a number of properties that were already under contract — the people back there had agreed to sell, and we all knew, and everybody understood, that if one or two people — one person — on Court didn’t want to sell, there was no eminent domain to be used. So the development in the rear would never happen and individual single-family homes would be built to the back,” he said.
“If, in fact, the community wants it to be residential, then let’s figure out how to do it. I’m a great guy for lemonade. If it doesn’t go the way you want, immediately turn around and do it the way they want … I’m disappointed with the outcome of that meeting because I think it could have been beneficial to the people who now are stuck with lots that must be sold residentially …”
Nolan told the Call he had asked 10 people to serve on the task force to study the residential redevelopment of the area and at press time was awaiting confirmation of their willingness to serve.
During the public hearing, several speakers who live on Court Drive and West Watson Road urged the commission to keep the area residential, voicing concerns about commercial encroachment into a residential area and additional traffic.
They also asked the panel to make a quick decision on the proposed changes to the comprehensive plan.
Ann McMunn, of Court Drive, said, “… I’m one of the few that is in the process of rebuilding … close to finishing rebuilding — at least halfway there — and I’m very frustrated because this is taking so long. I just want to move back home, bring my kids back home. I would like to see it stay residential. I think it’s a beautiful street. I think it can be a beautiful street again and it just breaks my heart. I think it should stay residential.”
Joe Fiala, of West Watson Road, said, “… My concern is that we moved into a residential area 21 years ago. We like it. It’s a residential area. I’m not interested in any more traffic on West Watson. I like a residential area and I’d like to keep it that way. Thank you very much.”
Gerald Kovach, of Court Drive, said, “… I agree with everybody else that I’d like to see it stay residential. I don’t object for ones being right on Lindbergh to be commercial. But what I don’t want to see is our private street to become a commercial street. I don’t want to see any more traffic coming down the street than what we have right now with all the gawkers coming down the street, sightseeing …”
David Witbrodt, of West Watson Road, told the commission, “… I’ve lived there for 34, 35 years. I’ve raised my kids here. I moved to Sunset Hills because it was a residential community, which is what I want to see the community remain — a residential community. I do not like seeing the intrusion of commercial property into a residential area like Sunset Hills.
“The people of Sunset Hills moved to this community because of what it was. It was a residential community, unlike other communities around that have gone commercial all over the place. I’m very concerned about excessive traffic showing up on West Watson Road …,” he added.
Also urging the commission not to change the comprehensive plan was Robert Mayer, of Eagle Hill Lane, a former Ward 4 alderman.
“… I was an alderman for the Fourth Ward at the time that the master plan was made and I will tell you that we spent an inordinate amount of time putting that master plan together,” he said. “And one of the key elements of putting that plan together was to prevent encroachment of commercial along Lindbergh, and many of you are not aware of the fact that the building that was Black and Decker was turned down by the Board of Aldermen, was turned down by Planning and Zoning, but the developer decided he would take it to the courts. And the courts passed it and told Sunset Hills to stay out of it and the building was built without our knowledge at that time ..
“Changing the master plan is not something that I think should be done at this time for this reason: It, in my opinion, will then give one more opportunity for people along Lindbergh Boulevard, particularly at the south end where there are a number of very small homes, to sell those homes — or attempt to sell those homes — and get it rezoned into commercial. And if we start screwing around with the master plan, you just take one more opportunity to give those folks a possibility of converting what is now residential at the south end into commercial …,” Mayer said.
He later added, “Do not change that master plan. It was done with a lot of effort and with a lot of consideration, and I’m sorry, I feel sorry for the folks that are involved. We do not need additional commercial along Lindbergh …”
Before the commission considered the resolution, Larry Gnojewski, who owns property at 3863 S. Lindbergh Blvd., urged the panel to delay making a decision, contending members did not have all the information they needed to act.
“… I can’t understand how this group can possibly make a decision tonight with only hearing one side of the argument. I think you should bring people in to explain why this is a good commercial development and why it’s a benefit to your community,” he said. “Why make a decision right now? Get all the facts. Do your due diligence. That’s — that’s what you’re supposed to do …”
As for residents’ concerns about traffic on West Watson Road and Court Drive, Gnojewski said, “… Traffic will not use either street. They will enter the development from Lindbergh and Lindbergh happens to be one of the most-traveled streets in our city. So traffic should be eliminated right from the start. It doesn’t enter the argument. If it stays residential, my property doesn’t fit the zoning requirements, so I need some other alternatives or I can’t build. It doesn’t have the square footage and it doesn’t have the width …
“And I’ll tell you this: That I do build houses and other commercial property. That’s the last lot on earth I want to buy to build a residence …,” he said.
The mayor also emphasized to the Call the consequences if a residential solution cannot be found to redeveloping the area.
“If we can’t come up with a way to do that, we’re going to be looking at empty ground for years and people suffering a severe financial hardship …,” he said.