Villages at Gravois Creek opponents eye legal challenge to development

By BURKE WASSON

Going into this week’s County Council meeting, Grantwood Village resident Mike Jones had accepted that the council would approve the Villages at Gravois Creek.

But he also said community members are ready to fight the 444-home subdivision planned to be built literally across the street from their homes with another action — a lawsuit.

“If that bill is passed as currently written Tuesday night,” Jones said Friday, “they can expect a legal challenge.”

The County Council was scheduled to meet Tuesday night — after the Call went to press — to vote on final passage of the Villages at Gravois Creek, situated on a 94-acre site along the south side of Gravois Road across from Grant’s Farm.

The council voted 5-2 last week to give initial approval to legislation to rezone the property to R-4 residential zoning with a planned environment unit, or PEU, that would allow the developer to count common ground and flood-plain property as part of lot sizes.

Council Chairman Kurt Odenwald of the 5th District and Councilman Skip Mange of the 3rd District cast the two “no” votes. The site is in the 6th District, which is represented by Councilman John Campisi, across the street from Odenwald’s 5th District.

While he described discussions with attorney Stephen Kling as “very fluid” at the moment, Jones said residents who live near the proposed subdivision are studying their legal options to make the project more appeasing. He declined to discuss specific details of the potential legal actions Friday because the County Council had yet to give final approval to the project.

But after the 5-2 vote May 2 to approve zoning to clear the way for the development, all involved sides contacted by the Call agreed last week that the council’s approval was only a matter of time.

“I can tell you this,” Jones said. “We’re prepared as a community for what happens Tuesday night. This result will not go unchallenged. You know, the only person who had nothing to lose or gain, being Skip Mange, who is in his last term, voted against this development. That tells us that morally and ethically, we’re on the right track.”

Jones said during the May 2 council meeting that the County Council can expect residents to challenge the legality of the PEU used in the development, which he said creates a subdivision too dense for the area.

Campisi said he also is concerned about losing a handle on density of the subdivision, which is why he voted to approve zoning for the Villages at Gravois Creek. He said if the council did not approve the subdivision, the county could face a legal challenge from the site’s developer, Gravois Co., a collection of local builders.

That challenge, which would likely come from Gravois Co. attorney John King, is one Campisi said he doubts the county would win.

“My fear is that I would lose the battle in court as far as rezonings go and then lose control of the property,” Campisi said. “The developers would go back in and ask for 487 (homes) or whatever it was to start with and then not get the concessions and everything that we’ve already been able to negotiate so far included in that.”

Those concessions that Campisi refers to include several items in a substitute bill he drafted that was perfected May 2 into Bill 113 by the County Council. Some of these changes Campisi proposed to make the subdivision more friendly to the area are:

• Moving the No. 3 subdivision entrance from Gravois Road inside the development to Charrette Drive.

• Moving the No. 2 subdivision entrance from Musick Road to Gravois Road.

• Widening Gravois Road to five lanes from Laclede Station Road to Musick Road.

• Making sure a sidewalk is built along Gravois Road from Laclede Station Road to Musick Road and also around the proposed development bordering Musick Road.

• Reducing two feet from the height of the hill along Musick Road near its intersection with Gravois Road to allow for increased visibility for drivers.

But when he speculates on any possible litigation from nearby residents to reduce density, Campisi said he is not fearful because the development is within legal requirements put forth by the county.

“Everybody’s entitled to litigation,” Campisi said. “And if they think they have something there for the PEU, obviously our counselors at the county say that the PEU stands and that it is legal. But you know what? Anything can be challenged in court. And if they win, then obviously the county will have to move forward and rectify that. But as of right now, the county counselors are saying that this is legal, and I have to go with it.”

Odenwald, despite what he believes is his better judgment, said he also is respectful of the County Council’s 5-2 vote on May 2 to approve Campisi’s substitute amendments to the bill.

Earlier in that same meeting, Odenwald introduced his own substitute bill, which proposed reducing the number of homes at the Villages at Gravois Creek from 444 to 261. But the motion failed after it did not get the required five votes for approval. Even though council members present at the meeting’s executive session voted in favor of Odenwald’s proposal by a 3-2 vote, Odenwald said the five votes in a supermajority are needed when changing zoning approved by the Planning Commission, which his proposal did.

Odenwald proposed changing zoning for the land on the east side of McNary Road to R-1A and switching to R-3 for property on McNary Road’s west end. Odenwald, Mange and 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn voted in favor of Odenwald’s changes, while Campisi and 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby voted in opposition. Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett of the 2nd District and 4th District Councilman Michael O’Mara were absent and did not vote.

Odenwald said that even with his substitute bill failing and the expected final approval of the development at Tuesday night’s meeting, he would be in contact with the developers and his district constituents to see what else could be negotiated.

“Even if this passes, that doesn’t mean that voluntarily there cannot be continued discussion to try to see what can be done to reduce the density, what can be done to try to address traffic concerns, to see if the developers would still continue to perhaps negotiate with the Affton Athletic Association to see what could be done to perhaps accommodate using McNary Road as an entrance,” Odenwald said. “There’s things that still could be done. They could submit revised site plans that could address concerns. The question there is that the legislation won’t require them to. But that doesn’t mean that efforts still can’t be taken to try to address what I believe are very real concerns.”

The issue of possibly using McNary Road as an entrance for the subdivision is steeped in documents that date back to 1975. At that time, the president of the Affton Athletic Association signed a quitclaim deed with the property’s then-owner — August A. Busch Jr. — to cede control of a six-foot land strip along the road.

However, the Affton Athletic Association does have easement rights to two 15-foot strips on either side of McNary Road.

That, Odenwald said, means that any proposed entrance on McNary Road would have to be built with the permission of the Affton Athletic Association, which has not yet publicly agreed.

“I think everyone seems to be satisfied that there is no ownership on McNary Road by the Affton Athletic Association,” Odenwald said. “But they do have easement rights, and those easement rights are substantial from what I understand and could certainly prove to be an impediment to a private developer seeking to use McNary Road for that development. It’s going to require the acquiescence, I believe, and consent of the association. But I think the issue of ownership no longer exists. And I think that was important with its impact on whether you could use a PEU for a development that is split by land that is privately owned.”

Jones and numerous residents still believe that the PEU is not legal because of its split with privately owned land. At the May 2 meeting, Jones told council members that he and several residents could not find another example of a PEU bisected by private property in all of St. Louis County.

With so much opposition, Jones said he believes that council members have either neglected the will of the people or underestimated it.

“How did it sink to this?” Jones said to the council. “If you vote for this, you approve a bill publicly supported by no one we can identify who lives or even works in this area.

“Will you in clean conscience vote to approve a bill in the face of so much determined opposition? With so much undefined baggage and loopholes that may well become black holes for the residents of this area. Why would you choose to join Mr. Campisi out on this shaky limb by approving a bill that has engendered so much community resistance? If this bill is approved, we will continue to pursue a legal challenge to the legitimacy of the PEU used to create the disproportionate density of this development. Please don’t vote yes. If you don’t fully understand the impact of this bill and the impact this bill has on this community, we ask you to please just abstain and give us time.”

Odenwald, who said he would not be abstaining from the vote, will again vote against the proposal because he believes it is harmful for both his 5th District constituents across the street and for the entire county. The fact that the proposed development is in another district is not something that Odenwald said would prevent him from doing what he believes is “the right thing.”

“As a councilman, I need to do what I think is right for St. Louis County period,” Odenwald said. “That’s first and foremost. And I really do try to give deference to the councilman within whose district the project resides.

“But this is on the border of the 5th District. Half of Gravois (Road) is in the 5th District. So if I want to take that approach, maybe I could suggest building a wall down Gravois Road that would separate the 5th and 6th districts. It doesn’t work that way.

“The impact of this development … it impacts so many of my constituents. We cannot look at this development in a vacuum. And so yes, it is unusual, I will agree … it is unusual for me to take such an active role in a development that is not within my district boundaries. But the direct impact of this development probably has as much or more of an impact on 5th District residents than it does on 6th District residents. And because of that, I would be remiss in my responsibility as a councilman not to stand up and do what I think is right. I’m going to respectfully disagree with the councilman from the 6th District. I say respectfully with that because I think he respects my position. This development could be further into another district away from my boundaries, and if I really felt something was tremendously wrong, I feel I would have an obligation to say so.

“It’s rare that I’m going to go against a councilman who supports a proposal in his or her district. But this isn’t the first time, and it may not be the last. I don’t think anybody with any sense of community could possibly suggest that I should remain silent on this just because it’s on the south side of Gravois Road as opposed to the north side of Gravois Road. That would be irresponsible.”

Campisi said he believes he has worked his best to research the proposed homes and has come up with the best solution. He knows that people will disagree with him about his plans for the area, but believes he is doing the best thing for his district.

“It’s not what everybody wants, and I know that,” Campisi said. “It’s not what the Grantwood Village people want there. And for that, I’m truly sorry that this particular development is across the street from them. But I have to say to everyone I’ve done my best to negotiate. I’ve done my best to meet with everyone. I’ve done my best as far as this decision and I will go forward with legislation as is.”