UPDATED: St. Louis County sells half of Sylvan Springs Park to expand Jefferson Barracks gravesites

Marc+Garcia+plays+the+trumpet+at+the+Jefferson+Barracks+National+Cemetery+ceremony.+Photo+by+Bill+Milligan.

Photo by Bill Milligan

Marc Garcia plays the trumpet at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery ceremony. Photo by Bill Milligan.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

Web-exclusive update, Thursday, Sept. 6: The County Council unanimously approved the sale of half of Sylvan Springs Park for more gravesites at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery Tuesday night. For full details, see the Sept. 13 print edition of the Call.

The plan to sell half of Sylvan Springs Park to the federal government to expand Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery is finally moving its way through the County Council after years tied up in court.

The council is set to take a final vote on the $2.5 million sale when it meets Tuesday.

It voted unanimously last week to grant preliminary approval to the sale, with 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, absent.

The sale appears to be a done deal since the county won a court battle to sell 38 acres of the 72-acre park after park advocates sued to stop the sale. But in the summer of 2015, opinion was split down the middle on whether county parkland should be converted to graves.

When the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs first sought the sale, the agency estimated that Jefferson Barracks, the fifth-busiest of the 132 national cemeteries, could run out of new gravesites by 2021 if it is not expanded.

  Now it is saying that with extra land it has since acquired from the VA Medical Center that adds space for 13,000 gravesites, the cemetery can make it to 2028 without Sylvan Springs Park and 2048 with it.

  But the idea behind the sale is the same: As more military veterans and their families seek to be buried in the national cemetery, space is running out. And although the Sylvan Springs sale is now estimated to add 20 years to the cemetery’s lifespan, the cemetery will have the same space limitations after 2048 and will still have to decide whether to expand elsewhere or try to acquire more land nearby.

When County Executive Steve Stenger first raised the idea in 2015, public opinion was passionate on both sides and fairly evenly divided at two public hearings held at The Pavilion at Lemay.

  In a show of hands at the end of a nearly three-hour public hearing at The Pavilion, 42 residents told county and federal officials they favored selling the park and 59 opposed the move. Dozens of public speakers were evenly divided on the issue, with a slight edge for those who didn’t want to sell.

At the time, the only member of the County Council who attended the hearing was then-6th District Councilman Kevin O’Leary, D-Oakville.

County Parks Director Gary Bess said an online survey showed 60 percent in favor.

The current legislator for the 6th District, Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, did not respond to requests for comment.

At least 15 property owners surrounding Sylvan Springs attended the original hearing, with many saying their homes will be jeopardized if the federal government expands the cemetery into their backyard.

And green-space advocates like the Open Space Council’s Katherine Dockery argued that since Sylvan Springs is only a short-term solution, more parkland could be taken in the future for the same purpose.

Former county Parks Director Marty Koch was so upset by the idea of selling Sylvan Springs that he sued, but lost.

This time around, the Open Space Council is staying out of the debate.

Instead, public comments at last week’s council meeting were dominated by several military veterans who urged the council to approve the sale so that their fellow service members can be buried there.

Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, said the “issue has been resolved,” and the council is moving forward with the sale despite also passing a potential Charter amendment for the November ballot that would send sales of parkland to a public vote.

“It’s a solitary event, so it appears that there’s support from the council to go through with this,” Page said. “This is a small sale for a worthy cause, and I think the county recognizes that. It will remain green space, but it’s green space that serves people in the armed forces.”

The county bought the property from Jefferson Barracks for $3,500 in 1950.

“The sale of parkland is always controversial,” Bess said, adding, “I think this is an appropriate use of our land… one of the most worthy reasons I can imagine.”

The $2.5 million from the sale will go to improving the other half of Sylvan Springs along with other county parks.

“It’s a holy place for me,” said veteran Al Katzenberger, who argued that Sylvan Springs is underutilized as a park but would be well used for graves. “It’s unfortunate that we need this land, but it’s very well needed by a lot of people.”