Suit seeks to prohibit sale of park land to federal government

The crowd at one of the Sylvan Springs public hearings raises its hands in favor of selling the park to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, as counted by county land-use manager Gail Choate. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

The crowd at one of the Sylvan Springs public hearings raises its hands in favor of selling the park to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, as counted by county land-use manager Gail Choate. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center filed suit this week in St. Louis County Circuit Court on behalf of three county taxpayers to prohibit the county from selling part of Sylvan Springs Park to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Two plaintiffs are former employees of the county Department of Parks and Recreation, and one of those two is also a former employee of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, and a Vietnam-era veteran. All three are users of Sylvan Springs Park.

After a series of public hearings last summer, the county entered into negotiations this fall with the federal government to sell half of Sylvan Springs Park for the expansion of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

Residents speaking at two public hearings in Lemay were evenly divided on whether the county should sell 38 acres of the 72-acre park to keep the cemetery in operation for the next two decades.

Veterans Affairs, or VA, estimates that Jefferson Barracks, the fifth-busiest of the 132 national cemeteries in the country, could run out of new gravesites by 2021 if it is not expanded.

Open Space Council Executive Director Katherine Dockery said during a public hearing that Sylvan Springs would only provide six more years of grave sites. But cemetery director Jeff Barnes told the Call the 26 usable acres from Sylvan Springs would give the cemetery 18 more years of gravesite space. Another 13,000 gravesites on property from the VA Medical Center could extend the life to 2046.

Without a plan outlined for where to go for more space after 2046, parks advocates believe VA officials could ask for the rest of Sylvan Springs or for Jefferson Barracks Park, which also adjoins the cemetery, instead of expanding to areas in Jefferson County or Illinois.

St. Louis County has owned and operated Sylvan Springs Park as a park since 1950, when the county purchased the property from the U.S. General Services Administration.

The lawsuit alleges that selling the park land would be illegal because the federal government dedicated the park to the county when it originally sold it to the county, and illegal because the county used bonds and taxes dedicated to parks that county residents approved at the ballot box.

“For over 20 years I worked in the area of the park and saw thousands of people enjoy it,” Martin Koch, one of the plaintiffs, stated in a news release issued by Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. “It would be a travesty to lose this resource of public recreation.”

“A park is a park forever, or it’s not a park,” Henry Robertson, an attorney at Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, stated in the release.

“Although many people feel the VA should have use of park land adjacent to an existing cemetery, the fact that an idea is popular does not make the sale of a park legal,” Great Rivers Environmental Law Center President Kathleen Henry, stated in the release. “The VA should have invested in a long-term solution long ago instead of assuming it would take over this park.”

County Executive Steve Stenger Stenger initially supported turning over the 38 acres to the cemetery, but he promised this fall that public input would drive whether the county moves forward with the plan, which he called a compromise between cemetery advocates and park lovers.