Water Tower Power: Does a city have zoning powers over utilities? Aldermen debate

Wong believes Sunset Hills has more power than it’s taking


The proposed new larger water tower is shown in this rendering from Missouri American Water. The new tower with the city logo, left, is shown next to the existing smaller tower. The new tower will be 105 feet tall with an 82-foot diameter and hold 1.5 million gallons, compared to the current tower at 95 feet with a 60-foot diameter that holds 250,000 gallons. The parking lot shown to the left is for the Sunset Center shopping plaza, where Gallery of Beauty is located along Gravois Road.

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

Missouri American Water has agreed to make changes to its new water tower in Sunset Hills, but city officials disagree over whether they have the power to make those legally binding on the utility.

Mayor Pat Fribis broke a 4-4 tie in January to grant Missouri American a conditional-use permit for a new larger tower at 11832 Sappington Barracks Road, directly north of the existing tower.

Residents on Crestwick Drive, which backs up to the property, are worried the new tower will lower their property values and block out the sun. However, City Attorney Robert E. Jones said that cities that have challenged similar towers in court have lost, with judges ruling that cities have no zoning power over utilities.

The new tower will be 105 feet tall with an 82-foot diameter and hold 1.5 million gallons, compared to the current tower at 95 feet with a 60-foot diameter that holds 250,000 gallons.

The taller elevated tank will be the largest tower of its kind in St. Louis County and serve more of South County than the current tower, roughly 110,000 residents south of Interstate 44, west of the River des Peres and northwest of Interstate 55. The location in Sunset Hills is key, the company says, due to its proximity to the South Water Treatment Plant at 12710 Maurer Drive.

The city asked utility representatives to attend the Feb. 4 Public Works Committee meeting to talk with the city about the tower, although any agreements are not legally binding.

“You said that you would work with us to make this as positive of an experience as we can for the people around there and for the city as a whole,” said Public Works Chairman Nathan Lipe, Ward 3 alderman. “We know there’s a need for this, but we want to make it as tolerable … and as non-invasive as possible.”

Ward 1 Alderman Ann McMunn listed eight concerns submitted by residents, including the tower’s size and lighting, water pressure of surrounding homes, fencing, protections for residents during construction, stresses on neighboring foundations, flooding and access to the site.

Missouri American engineering manager Derek Linam said the only lights are at the entrance to the property and over the door to the base of the tank.

McMunn asked if the entrance door to the tank could face away from the back of Crestwick’s houses, which Linam said would be fine. The utility is willing to work with residents on fencing around the tower, Linam added: “We’re not married to that type of fence. There is decorative chain link. … We can work with them on the fence type, a combination of some additional greenery. …”

Ward 2 Alderman Casey Wong, who is an attorney, questioned the point of the CUP and the committee if the city has no real zoning authority: “What are we talking about? Conditions? Suggestions? Why are we even having this conversation after the fact?”

“Because they are willing to be a good partner to the city,” replied Ward 4 Alderman Thompson Price. “I think they are willing to listen to whatever your suggestions are … that will make this a very attractive project. It’s a necessary product that has to be here.”

But Wong contends that the city has more power over utilities than it is taking.

“I think the city got it wrong. I think Missouri American Water sat on their hands and bit their tongue, knowing that the mayor read erroneous comments. Which is why they are here after the fact trying to attach these quasi-conditions and suggestions,” retorted Wong. “Here we are, trying to clean up a mess that is the fault of everybody. … Are we just wasting everybody’s time?”

Missouri American Water attorney John Kilper said the utility agreed to work with residents to make the tower more aesthetically pleasing. Following the Feb. 4 meeting, the water company hosted a virtual meeting with residents and representatives from the city about the water tower’s design and could host more in the future.