Villages at Gravois Creek opponents to challenge legality of PEU

County Council finally passes two bills to clear way for subdivision’s zoning

By BURKE WASSON

A proposed 424-home development across from Grant’s Farm now will go from the County Council chambers to the courtroom as nearby residents plan legal action against the council’s final decision to approve zoning for the Villages at Gravois Creek.

Grantwood Village resident Mike Jones and local attorney Stephen Kling have confirmed that residents will contest the legality of the planned environment unit, or PEU, that was passed for the subdivision along with residential R-4 zoning. The PEU allows the homes’ developer, the Gravois Co., to count flood-plain property as common ground to allow for an increased number of homes.

That, according to Jones and Kling, should be overturned in court.

“What we’re going to try to do is attack the legitimacy of the PEU, the planned environment unit that the developers used to establish the density that they’re going to use in building that project,” Jones said. “If you can successfully challenge the PEU and get it overturned or even reduced … then you knock units out of that development and, hopefully, you’re able to knock enough units out of there so that they can’t afford the $21 million minimum they’ve guaranteed Andy Busch (the property’s former owner). So in a nutshell, that’s our strategy. We have several different aspects that we feel are challengeable in the PEU itself and we intend to proceed with them.”

After roughly six months of discussion, the County Council voted 5-2 on May 23 to approve two bills establishing the zoning for the subdivision. Fifth District Council Chairman Kurt Odenwald, R-Shrewsbury, and 3rd District Councilman Skip Mange, R-Town and Country, were opposed.

The property sits in the 6th District, which is represented by Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, who introduced both bills for the Villages at Gravois Creek.

The 94-acre plot of land once owned by the Busch family was sold last year by Andrew Busch to the Gravois Co. — a group of local builders — for $23.6 million, which breaks down to exactly $250,000 per acre.

Campisi, whose sponsorship of the bills has attracted the ire of residents in both the 5th and 6th districts, has repeatedly said that he has done his best to make the development more appeasing by introducing four substitute bills for Bill 113, which established the zoning for the property.

“I have to say that I think I’ve addressed a lot of the concerns of people that live in the area,” Campisi said. “Along Musick (Road), I’m putting in a third lane. By putting up signs to move traffic through, by widening the area right there at Musick and Gravois (Road), by placing sidewalks all the way down Musick the length of the development all the way down to Laclede Station Road … This is probably one of the hardest developments I have ever passed and had to go forward with.”

But now that the County Council has made its final approval of the Villages at Gravois Creek, residents now will pursue a legal battle after failing in their attempts to persuade the council to reduce the subdivision’s density.

However, the two councilmen who voted against the bills to approve the development are far from finished with the project and have indicated that they are willing to help fund a lawsuit from nearby residents.

Jones said that both Mange and Odenwald have already pledged money to the residents group Grassroots at Gravois to help pay for legal expenses used for Kling’s representation. The group is accepting pledged donations — not cash or checks — and Jones said anyone wanting to make a pledge to help pay for legal fees can either e-mail the group at brational@sbcglobal.net or mail a pledge to 6 Grantwood Lane, St. Louis, Mo. 63123.

Before he voted no on Bill 112, which established the boundaries of the Villages at Gravois Creek, Mange made it clear to those in attendance May 23 that he would be happy to help fund the effort to essentially sue the very council he serves.

“I have always supported reasonable development,” Mange said. “I think this is unreasonable development. There is no doubt in my mind that if we chose to deny this application, it could be defended as not being arbitrary and capricious. I think there are several severe legal questions regarding this. I think the transfer of development rights, one side of private property to the other side of private property, ought to be challenged. I think that by doing that and taking the density and putting it all over onto one piece that you are in essence creating spot zoning … I think the use of the floodway, which sets aside private use for Cor Jesu and then gives density credit to that same ground, ought to be challenged. I feel so strongly that it ought to be challenged that I’m willing to get out my checkbook and help with it.”

Regarding the developers’ deal with Cor Jesu Academy, an all-girls Catholic school adjacent to the site of the Villages at Gravois Creek, some still are confused as to its details. Cor Jesu agreed in April to buy 3.35 acres of the site from the Gravois Co. for future expansion. Campisi has said that the contract has not been signed yet by Cor Jesu officials because the deal stipulates that no action can be taken until County Council approval, which happened May 23.

Cor Jesu officials now have until Aug. 21 — 90 days after the council’s approval — to sign the deal with the developers. Once the signatures are in place, then the contract details become public and, according to Campisi, 20 units will be dropped from the attached villas section of the Villages at Gravois Creek.

But Affton Athletic Association President Robert Barczewski asked the County Council May 23 if they knew any details of the “secret deal” between Cor Jesu and the developers.

“My concern is that the Cor Jesu deal gives Cor Jesu access to McNary Road through an easement or some other legal device and that will negatively impact the ability of our families to access the Affton Athletic Association,” Barczewski said. “I asked last week in an e-mail to Councilmen Campisi, Odenwald and Mange if you would use your influence to determine what was the secret that appears to be hidden in the Cor Jesu deal? Have any of you tried to learn what the confidential deal is?”

“Robert, there was no secret deal made between the developers and Cor Jesu,” Campisi said to Barczewski.

“I’ve been told it’s confidential by (Cor Jesu Principal) Sister Sheila (O’Neill) a few times,” Barczewski said.

“Bob, there’s no secret deal,” Campisi said.

“Do you understand why I’m concerned that there’s something to hide in the Cor Jesu deal?” Barczewski said. “I can only hope now that you will not compromise the Affton Athletic Association with this bill and this deal.”

Campisi said minutes before he cast the deciding vote to approve Bill 113 that he believes he has worked to the best of his ability to improve the development and that he would continue to work with concerned citizens while the homes are being constructed.

“I have done my complete best, I think, in this development,” Campisi said. “While Grantwood Village may think that there’s more units there than there should be, well, I have Councilman Mange here that says he’s going to open his checkbook up to you, the fact of the matter is that it all comes down to the PEU and the capability of using that PEU in order to make this development what it is now. It is legal.

“Our county counselor (Patricia Redington) has said it’s legal. I assume they’re prepared to fight. I have honestly done my best for this development and done my best for the area and I think that the homes that are going to be built along Musick and Gravois are going to be very nice homes. I want to let everybody know that I do have artists’ renderings of the types of homes that I promised last week. I will have them available to the people in Grantwood Village … And I’m still willing to work with people as much as I possibly can,” he said.

Odenwald, however, defended the residents of Grantwood Village, which sits in his 5th District across the street from the Villages at Gravois Creek, by telling Campisi that the subdivision affects not only the 5th District, but Campisi’s 6th District as well.

“Councilman Campisi, you know, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘the people of Grantwood Village,'” Odenwald said. “And this isn’t just about Grantwood Village. It’s not. It’s about this entire area. It’s the uniqueness of this area and a lost and squandered opportunity.”

Odenwald elaborated by saying that he believes each substitute bill proposed by Campisi made the development “from bad to worse” and that the council missed a chance to build a quality subdivision.

“I hearken back to the initial Planning Department recommendation — the Planning Department comments that this is very aggressive zoning.” Odenwald said. “The concerns that were stated by the department at that time sought to reduce the density, sought to address traffic by requiring access off of McNary Road. And while that wouldn’t solve the problem, it recognized that this is something very challenging here and this is something very difficult to accomplish without adversely affecting other neighborhoods.

“The density, in my mind, is compromised, and I think we’ve wasted an opportunity to have a truly signature development,” the council chairman said.

Jones said that although he appreciates the efforts of Odenwald and Mange, he and other nearby residents walk away from their pleas to the County Council feeling that the organization itself is essentially a dysfunctional tool of local developers.

“The council itself is so profoundly dysfunctional,” Jones said. “We come away from this process after six months with the very firm opinion that the council is a development tool. And if something’s not patently illegal, they’re an enabler. They’re not anything that a citizens group can expect to get any recourse for action through.

“It doesn’t work that way. I think there were a couple council people who were wondering if we even had the right to be up there talking. We were pretty stunned at the lack of response. You know, it’s real easy for these people to cast aye votes. But they never have to explain them. And when those people live up in north county and they represent north county and they vote aye and you don’t why, you have to assume that your whole logic is either falling on deaf ears or falling on an illogical process.”