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Wentzville, Orchard Farm school districts become twin towers of growth in St. Charles County

Curtis Cain was fully aware of the growth issues facing the Wentzville School District when he took over as superintendent in 2013. Still, knowing them and living them can be two different things.

“I will tell you that to observe from a distance is completely different than to live that notion of growth that feels like it’s daily, because that’s exactly what it is.  Thinking of it on a daily basis, you have to be considering it all the time,” Cain said.

The school has been growing by about 600 students a year since 2001. It has more than 16,000 students and 2,100 employees and has been the fastest growing school district in Missouri for years.

“I remember the third Thursday in July 2015, we grew by 67 students that one day, that one day,” Cain said during an interview earlier this month.

Tom Muzzey has been superintendent of the Orchard Farm School District for five years. That school district, the smallest in the county, has served a largely rural area to the east and north of the city of St. Charles. That area, which lies between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, includes extremely rich, largely flat farmland but is subject to flooding. Still, the building of Route 370 across the Missouri River and along the northern tier of St. Charles and St. Peters brought changes and opened up new land for industrial and residential development. As a result, the district’s student enrollment has grown by 27 percent in five years to about 2,000 students – and it’s about to grow more.

Muzzey said he saw that potential. “When I interviewed here I told them that it would be the tale of two cities at some point, “Muzzey said. “That’s really kind of proven to be true as we’ve grown and continued to evolve.”

The growth in both school districts is in rooftops – more specifically in single-family homes. They have become the twin towers of growth in a county that continues to grow appreciably.

The city of Wentzville and the area around the city in western St. Charles County has been among the fastest growing areas in population for years leading the county and St. Louis region in single-family homes. And despite some slowing of new housing starts, the Wentzville area probably will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, particularly with a strong economy.

“That’s not a trend,” Cain said. “We’ve grown by 1,046 students over the last two summers.” 

But the newer story is what’s happening in Orchard Farm and areas in the north and eastern parts or the city or St. Charles. Whether the growth in this area is as broad or as large as what’s going on in Wentzville is doubtful but it is happening and it’s substantial enough.

Through May of this year, Wentzville led municipalities in St. Charles County in single-family housing starts with 166 single-family housing permits, according to statistics gathered by the county’s Community Development Department. The city of St. Charles was second with 151.

Ten years ago, the St. Charles County housing market was in a crisis mode. The recession in 2007-2008 had slowed the county’s then-booming housing market to a crawl. Slowly, as the economy began to recover, so did the building of single-family housing and the sale of older homes.

Mark Stallmann, chief executive officer for the St. Charles County Realtors Association, said a combination of factors has contributed to a resurrection of the housing market.

There was a pent-up demand for housing from millennials who put off the purchase of homes, Stallmann said in a recent interview. Wages are slowly going up, there is some optimism on the economy, he added.  Along with new homes, the sale of older homes also has jumped throughout the county, Stallmann said.

Stallman said houses with price tags in the $300’s or higher price range aren’t selling as fast. But homes in a median range of $213,500 are selling so quickly that demand is outpacing available inventory.

“In the first quarter of this year, median-priced homes stayed on the market 18 days,” Stallmann said. “If it’s priced right, and in good shape, it’s going to sell.”

New home construction may never approach pre-recession rates, Stallmann said. “Many of the builders we’ve talked with said they are having difficulty finding enough employees and tradesmen.” He also said there is some concern about regulations slowing lending for medium and smaller banks that play a big role in home loans.

New Town remains a catalyst for growth

It was called a “new urbanist community” when it opened in 2005. Developer Greg Whitaker espoused New Town, located on a small natural ridge in St. Charles, as a walkable, mixed-use community – a radically different environment to typical automobile-centered suburbs.

Whitaker now plans to build 850 homes on 160 acres added to the original New Town development, starting in 2019.  The original development has about 1,500 homes and 3,500 residents.

St. Charles Community Development Director Bruce Evans said the original New Town lived up to the city’s expectations.

“Whitaker was smart enough to find a provision in our zoning code that provides for planned development – PD we call it – a lot of cities call it PUD,” Evans said.

“In St. Charles, our PD gives the developer a lot of freedom,” Evans said. “It says you don’t have to adhere to our minimum lot size, you don’t have to adhere to our setbacks, and we will give you the freedom to design your project. But when you do, we’re going to hold you to it. You’ve got to do what you tell us you’re going to do.”

Since New Town, virtually all the new housing developments in the city have used PD zoning.

Subdivisions close to New Town also are adding housing. Last November, the city of St. Charles gave its approval to a 245-unit subdivision on a 67.7-acre portion of the old part of the New Town development, known as Charlestowne Crossing. Another new city subdivision is the Villages of Provence.

Inset [left] the new Charlestowne Crossing subdivision and [right] construction at the Orchard Farm Early Learning Center

The walkable atmosphere allows people to talk to their neighbors sitting on porches, said Evans, who lives in New Town. But New Town isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If they want their garage in the front of their house or a bigger lot, they need to look elsewhere. “But it’s clearly appealing to a lot of folks,” Evans said.

There is one wrinkle in the county’s eastern and northern development that may limit the proliferation of new housing developments in the area. “Quite frankly there isn’t any more large tracts of land,” Evans said. “New Town sits on land that is in a 500-year floodplain, which you can’t develop without flood insurance.”

The ridge that extends north of New Town into the Orchard Farm area has the potential for more development because water and sewer access is available. But there may be opposition from residents who have farmed the property, and the ridge is narrow. “We’ve never had any feelers or questions of going north of New Town, yet my guess is someday we will.”

Once the new developments fill up in five to 10 years, Evans said the city may have to look more toward infill redevelopment of older city neighborhoods.

The New Town approach is being mirrored in other places.

In February, the Wentzville Board of Aldermen approved a rezoning to planned development, mixed-use for a 24.2-acre tract, which officials said is a new concept for the city. The development, known as The Lake at Pinewoods, is on the north side of Interstate Drive, east of Hepperan Road. It will have 93 lots and commercial outlets. In all, 47 single-family homes, 16 two-family homes and 30 multi-family units the development will feature a retro look, with narrower streets.

Sam Chimento, a principal of Cornerstone Development, said the typical subdivision with a driveway and garage in front may remain the norm but there also may be a demand for something different. “Not everyone wants the same thing,” Chimento said. A lot of single people want smaller households and don’t like to cut grass. Cornerstone is developing the property.

Chimento said people are willing to drive to Wentzville. People don’t drive as much to downtown St. Louis for jobs. “They maybe drive to Clayton, they may drive to Earth City and they drive to Chesterfield Valley. Jobs are becoming more centralized in the St. Louis region,” he said. 

Wentzville may continue to be attractive because the Route 370 corridor is somewhat out of the way. Growth is moving west, a rocky topography limits development in Jefferson County and Illinois is “dysfunctional,” he said.

While Wentzville experiences slow but steady growth

The housing start numbers are a bit down in Wentzville this year but that doesn’t mean the growth trend is ebbing, city officials say.

Wentzville Mayor Nick Guccione said the city’s population should be about 42,000 by the 2020 U.S. Census.  “In five years it may be 47,000 to 48,000, we’re headed to over 50, 000,” Guccione said. “Wentzville is projected to be the biggest municipality in St. Charles County.  I don’t see it changing because Wentzville is a desirable place to be. It’s a good community.”

Yet Guccione concedes that “growing pains” can be daunting with the need for more infrastructure such as roads and utility lines to serve new homes, schools and business. City staff and officials have begun meeting with school district officials and staff to discuss some of these issues.

One problem the school district has is buying land for new schools. “The price of land is going up,” Guccione said.

He said he discussed the city imposing impact fees on new development about 10 years ago. “That wasn’t very popular and the builders went after me,” he said. Developers could contribute something voluntarily without implementing something like that, he said.

Unlike other county cities, Wentzville isn’t running out of land for new development. For now, there isn’t a lot of interest in multi-family developments such as condominiums or apartments.

“There’s a wealth of property in Wentzville,” Doug Forbeck, the city’s community development director, said. “A lot of the easier, larger tracts have experienced growth and have developments on them but there are still sizeable tracts along Wentzville Parkway and West Meyer Road where there are public utilities and where you find growth continue to happen.”

Guccione said decisions also rest with the city’s Board of Aldermen. “The elections change things every year,” he said. “[Voters] don’t understand, I’m the executive branch. I do try to guide [the Board of Aldermen].  Sometimes I can get them to go the way I think it should go and the staff thinks, sometimes I can’t,” he said.

Guccione said his next goal is to build a rec-plex or “multigenerational building” that may feature indoor aquatics and a new senior center. He said he has heard interest from residents but the city has to figure out how to pay for it. “That’s the top thing they want in the city, a rec-plex and a Trader Joe’s and a Red Lobster.”

Meanwhile, two districts strive to keep up

Rocky topography and dysfunctional government aren’t impediments in western St. Charles County.

Cain said there is still prime developable land in both the eastern and western parts of the Wentzville School District. The district not only includes Wentzville but parts or all of Lake Saint Louis, Foristell, Dardenne Prairie, O’Fallon and some unincorporated areas. 

“In Wentzville, what literally 18 months ago was farmland will have homes on it with students living in said homes,” Cain said. “That’s not a threat, that’s an absolute statement of reality.”

Construction of a third floor of classrooms, part of Prop E improvements, which were completed in December 2016. Prop E was passed by voters in April 2015.

A recent district demographic study suggests that in the next decade, the district may grow by 5,500 to 6,700 students to 21,500 to 23,000 students – the fifth largest in the state, Cain said. To help deal with growth, the district has been actively involved with the business community and the city.

“We’re just trying to figure out the logistics of how to address and deal with the growth, that’s the great challenge,” Cain said. “I have found people to be very amenable and open to listening to our story. It isn’t our plight. It’s our story, our narrative, and folks, I’ve have found, have been more than willing to sit at a table and have a conversation.”

There are immediate issues that the district is worried about. In April, district voters approved Proposition E, a $125 million, no-tax-increase bond issue – its largest ever – to build a new high school and elementary school and add other school space. The district has a location for the new high school – west Myer Road and North Point Prairie – but no location for the elementary school. Schools have to be located where they are needed but land is expensive and roads and sewers have to be nearby. Developers aren’t giving it away.

Cain said support from the public has been exemplary. Last year, the district opened Stone Creek Elementary on Aug. 14 and Wabash Elementary the next day. He said the Board of Education, less than a month later on Sept. 12, was figuring out what is next. That was the genesis of the no-tax bond issue approved by 71.5 percent of voters in April, he said.

“I don’t know of a place that within a month opens two buildings of over 101,000 square feet of space per building to house 900 students and is immediately having a conversation on what’s next,” he said.

What’s next for Orchard Farm is construction and an “enhancement of facilities.” On June 21, the district announced the purchase of 106 acres of land for future growth – 97 acres located west of the intersection of Hwy. B and Hwy. 94 with a negotiated price of $35,000 per acre and eight acres located south of the railroad crossing on Hwy. 94 with a negotiated price is $20,000 per acre. 

Proceeds from Proposition R will be used to fund the purchase. Voters overwhelmingly approved Prop R in the April election by a vote of 87 percent to 13 percent to help the district “repair, restore and renew.”

Orchard Farm also is preparing a five-year plan. Muzzey said those plans will involve acquiring additional land for future school sites. But land is limited. Much of it is family owned farmland and expensive.  

“[Farmers] don’t need the money and they don’t want the development,” Muzzey said. But the district can’t wait to develop new schools as more students arrive.  They are already coming. Both Muzzey and Evans say homes already are selling quickly in the Charlestowne Crossing subdivision.

“It’s unbelievable what they’ve done in the last 18 months,” Muzzey said. “We’ve had to add a bus route because of that [development]. One bus doesn’t sound like a lot for some school districts but when you’re small, every 25 kids is a classroom,” he said. “Where does that classroom come from?”

The Orchard Farm Board of Education has been very forward-thinking about discussing the need for new school building sites, Muzzey said. “We can see ourselves going to 5,000 students in 10 to 12 years potentially,” he said. Still, the district has to be wary of being too aggressive in its planning because growth can be affected by the economy or other issues.

New Town and other emerging subdivisions in St. Charles may be affected by the Amazon facility going in across the Missouri River in St. Peters.

“You get out to Elm [Street] and [Route] 370 and the Amazon distribution center is four minutes away from the front door of New Town,” Muzzey said. He added that the area is seeing an influx of people from North St. Louis County and Florissant as well as executives. Other subdivisions nearby may include younger families who may add more school children to the mix.

It is hoped that St. Charles City and County have the experience to provide the needed infrastructure to support growth in the Orchard Farm area, but there also is a worry. Muzzey said he is trying to educate residents about the district’s concerns.

“Orchard Farm has the lowest total tax levy in the county. We’re able to do a lot of great things with a very low tax rate,” Muzzey said. But, depending on the area’s growth, that low rate may need to change “because it costs money to build buildings.”

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