Sunset Hills panel postpones consideration of task force’s recommendation

Panel’s recommendation ‘unworkable,’landowner tells planning commission.

By MIKE ANTHONY

The Sunset Hills Planning and Zoning Commission last week postponed until October consideration of a recommendation for the area devastated by the New Year’s Eve tornado that swept through the city.

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 9-1 Sept. 7 to postpone consideration of the Residential Recovery Task Force’s recommendation for Court Drive and West Watson Road west of South Lindbergh Boulevard. Commission member Stuart Walls was opposed.

The Residential Recovery Task Force, which was appointed in June by Mayor Bill Nolan, had recommended the Planning and Zoning Commission vote to amend the city’s comprehensive master plan to allow for both single-family residences and attached housing on Court Drive and West Watson Road — similar to the nearby Courtyards of Sunset Hills, which has both single-family homes and attached villas.

As proposed, the recommendation would require the creation of a new designation for the comprehensive master plan permitting both attached-unit residential or single-family residential, according to City Engineer Anne Lamitola.

The roughly 10-acre site currently is zoned R-2 single-family residential with a 20,000-square-foot minimum lot size. To move forward on the task force’s recommendation to amend the comprehensive master plan, the Planning and Zoning Commission would have to schedule a public hearing on the proposal. However, the panel’s decision last week postpones any consideration on whether to conduct that hearing until at least next month.

Nolan established the task force after the commission voted June 1 to reject an amendment to change the comprehensive master plan to provide for commercial and attached-unit residential uses of the area.

During meetings throughout June, July and early August, task force members met with two developers who agreed that a Courtyards-type residential development would be feasible. On Aug. 10, task force members presented their recommendation to Nolan, who asked them to present it to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The recommendation excludes two commercial properties on South Lindbergh Boulevard — 3819 S. Lindbergh Blvd., the site of Telle Tire & Auto Services, and 3825 S. Lindbergh Blvd., the site of the former SSM Imaging Center, which since has been demolished. Also excluded from the area are two properties currently zoned residential but designated as commercial in the comprehensive master plan — 12415 Court Drive and 12410 Chrisann Lane. Included in the area at property owner John Beaury’s request is 12418 Chrisann Lane.

Task force members Robert Mayer, a former alderman, and Bill Bollinger, presented the recommendation to the planning panel last week with Mayer saying, “… The key to it is very simply if we change this zoning and on the master plan, then the developers will talk with the residents. They will see who wants to sell, who doesn’t want to sell. They’ll see whether it’s feasible or not. If it is, then they’ll come to the city with the ideas and the plans and what they want to do, which you guys have the ability to either accept or reject …”

He also noted that the developers the task force spoke with would not consider bringing forth a residential redevelopment proposal unless the master plan is changed.

After the presentation, roughly 10 speakers, including residents and property owners, addressed the commission.

Dr. George Despotis, of Des Peres, a trustee for properties at 12417 W. Watson Road and 3825 S. Lindbergh Blvd., urged the panel to reject the task force’s recommendation given its “flawed charge” of only investigating residential solutions for the area. Despotis also voiced a number of other concerns about the task force, including a lack of representation from land owners within the affected area.

Planning and Zoning Commission member John Littlefield, a former alderman, also addressed the panel. He had noted earlier in the meeting he would recuse himself from the issue of the task force’s recommendation because he owns a half interest in 12405 W. Watson Road.

“… The thing I would like to do is echo what Dr. Despotis said, that there was lack of representation. The only thing I don’t think he said was there was none of my aldermen … on this committee. And I think they should have been consulted about this and should have been — and least one of them and maybe both — on this committee. And I object to that,” he said. “We have had two developers — Sansone and Despotis — after us for our property. And we — and I think as a planner and a member of this community for the last 44 years, that that would be the highest and best use, especially along Lindbergh, for that to be commercial.”

Noting he bought the home as a rental property, Littlefield said, “… I’ve always taken good care of that property, thinking someday that this might be a commercial area along Lindbergh. I don’t know about the rest, I think it should be residential but I don’t think that we’re getting highest and best use. I understand, too, that the city is not a wealthy city.

“You don’t have a great deal of money and we’re probably going to run short this year and have to readjust the budget for that. With this being a commercial development, that could put us back into a much stronger position as a city …”

Some homeowners told the commission they have been unable to sell their homes and have been offered commercial contracts for their properties.

Bryce Thomason said he has been unable to sell his Court Drive home despite dropping the price to a point where he would be losing money.

“… When the tornado happened, it was really a terrible thing for so many of our neighbors,” he said. “For us, we had hoped that maybe it would actually get us out from under this dark cloud, which is this really expensive home that’s costing me about $50,000 a year just to let it set there. I have a contract from Sansone Group. It is a contract that … the task force plan can’t touch. It allows me to walk away from this home scot-free, not having to pay — not taking any money to closing. Any other option, I’ll have to do that. So I just ask that you open your hearts and minds …”

Larry Gnojewski, of Kirkwood, who owns property at 3863 S. Lindbergh Blvd., contended the task force’s recommendation was “unworkable.”

“… If I were king and I had to develop something that would benefit the whole community, I would make that first 500 feet commercial and the rear part I would change that into assisted living such as Kirkwood is doing,” he said. “This is a need that this community needs and in addition to that, you’d get the tax revenue from the commercial development. I want to emphasize that the proposal that was made is chaos. It’s unworkable. You can’t get a multiple number of developers in there to build a hopscotch development. It has to be done by one developer or possibly two that will go in on one development …”

During a discussion of the task force’s presentation by the commission, Lamitola suggested members could make a recommendation to the Board of Aldermen “to obtain redevelopment proposals, general redevelopment proposals, for the area … Just open it up and take any type of redevelopment proposal or something to that effect and see what the true market would dictate because right now, I have questions as to whether or not a full commercial development would be supported. I don’t necessarily think so and I don’t think what we heard from the task force would necessarily fit the market — supports that. So for the city and the Planning and Zoning Commission to make that decision even next month, I don’t know if it’s prudent because there aren’t enough facts and so I think we need some evidence from the marketplace. That’s my personal opinion.”

Mayer later said, “… What we recommended tonight adds flexibility to an existing area. It doesn’t change anything. It could be totally residential single family and that’s what it’s going to be if commercial gets turned down. And that’s what we … heard at the June meeting. It’s turned down, guys.

“Commercial is turned down in that area. You’ve got one of two things to do. You can let the people hang while you guys decide what you want to do … We’re not trying to push anybody out of their homes. We’re not trying to get anybody to sell if they don’t want to. We also don’t want people sitting there with contracts for three times what the value of the land is, hoping that Sansone gets to buy it later because there will be a tremendous amount of problem(s) with that because there are just twice as many people against it as there (are) for it on commercial and you guys already turned down commercial — a month ago or two months ago …”