Panel urges denial of Court Drive plan

Third commercial proposal rejected by panel this year

By Gloria Lloyd

In what has become the “Groundhog Day” of Sunset Hills city government, for the third time this year, developers are taking a plan for commercial development of Court Drive to the Board of Aldermen after the Planning and Zoning Commission recommended denial.

Last week, the panel recommended denial of a 20-home development of attached houses from Pulte Homes and a credit union on property owned by Dr. George Despotis, whose attorney John King has pledged to sue the city if officials do not allow him to develop it commercially.

The panel denied the plan 7-2, with members Steve Young and Bill Hopfinger in favor.

It will now advance to the Board of Aldermen, which will next meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 22, at City Hall, 3939 S. Lindbergh Boulevard.

For years, the tornado-damaged Court Drive residential neighborhood has been targeted for commercial development by Despotis because of its prime location along South Lindbergh Boulevard. But residents have fought back against the commercialization of their neighborhood and have called for houses to be built instead.

Residents appeared to gain a victory when Despotis dropped plans for a large-scale development with a grocery store in favor of the credit union, but residents point to a city task force that concluded the best use for the site was residential.

Just this year, the property has been proposed for a 4-acre development centered around a First Community Credit Union, a plan that is still tabled at the Board of Aldermen.

In the latest plan, Pulte proposes to build two-story attached town houses that they call villas but that commissioners referred to as “row houses.” While the architect only provided a rendering of a duplex, the proposal includes four-plexes and five-plexes — five houses attached together. The houses would have 20-foot front setbacks and 10-foot back setbacks and would be attached in the middle by their garages.

Pulte developer Matt Segal said the market is hot in Sunset Hills for this type of housing, catering to older empty-nesters who want to stay in the city but not have to maintain a large lawn. The houses are proposed to retail for roughly $400,000.

The credit union would be on the 1.1-acre lot owned by Despotis at the corner of South Lindbergh Boulevard and West Watson Road, across from the Police Department. In exchange for switching that lot, currently zoned residential, to commercial, a half-acre site next to Telle Tire also owned by Despotis would be rezoned residential.

The credit union corner would be shielded by 138 trees and 221 shrubs and large grasses, King said, with no light escaping at night.

The panel weighed the issue five years to the day from a key Planning and Zoning Commission meeting that attracted hundreds of residents to the Community Center to object to the commercialization of Court Drive, which was then proposed separately by Despotis and Sansone Group. At that meeting, the commission reaffirmed the Residential Task Force’s recommendation that the area stay residential.

“We, as you know, have long been op-posed to commercial development at this site,” commission Chairman Terry Beiter told King. “And over the years, we’ve made promises to the residents of this community that indeed we wouldn’t do commercial at this site.”

As recently as the previous month, Beiter noted, the planning panel told King that they would rather see residential development at the site instead of the credit union.

Over and over, residents have said they don’t want commercial development on Court Drive, the chairman noted.

“I don’t think when you do zoning as a planning commission that you do it based on what the residents necessarily want, but you do it based on the highest and best use for that tract of land,” said King, who often appears before the county Planning Commission and those of other cities along with Sunset Hills. “I think that your job is not necessarily to do what a small group of citizens want, but your job is to represent the people of Sunset Hills. And what is best for all of the people is not necessarily what is best for a small group of people.”

But Pat Otto, who has served on the panel since the 1980s, fought back against the idea that the planning panel has only been listening to a minority of Sunset Hills residents when it comes to Court Drive.

The city held focus groups on the issue in 1999, “and they said over and over that they do not want the residential area to be infringed by commercial,” she said. “So please sir, do not think that we are representing a small group of people,we are representing the community. And the community stated that, not just a small group.”

Besides the considerations of what a planning panel is supposed to do, “the rights of the people who own the property have to be considered,” King added.

But nearby residents say they will show up to as many meetings as they have to, over and over, to defeat any Despotis plan with commercial development.

And while real-estate developers spoke to say they are clamoring to buy the Despotis-contracted properties along Court Drive to build more $800,000 houses for people who want to move into Lindbergh Schools, Pulte contended that there is no market for such houses in Sunset Hills. Instead, the market is in attached villas, Segal said.

New Sunset Hills resident Paul Bucherich told the panel, “I can’t tell you how ecstatic we are to finally get into the Lindbergh School District … If you can get in the Lindbergh School District, it is like a small piece of gold. It is a daunting challenge because there’s no land for people to build on — nobody’s leaving, everybody wants to be here. It’s a fabulous place to be, and I don’t think I’m shedding any light on anything you guys don’t already know.

“There are numerous families just like mine who are dying to get into this district. We have personal friends who are waiting and hoping that they can buy the lot behind us on Court Drive.”

As for Despotis’ rights to develop his property and Pulte representatives’ contention that the credit union has to be included because, as Bucherich paraphrased, “Mr. Despotis has to make money on this,” the new resident noted, “Business is a gamble. And he gambled, he bought residential lots, and if he wants to build residential, that’s his right. But it’s not his right to have and demand it be rezoned for his purposes and his purposes only.”