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Envision 2030: Master plan update seeks to imagine the future of rural St. Charles County

Residents say county parks, such as Quail Ridge [shown here], are nice but low density land development is nicer.  [Photo courtesy of St. Charles County]

Some St. Charles County residents are a bit uneasy about what portions of the county will look like in the future.

Their unease is about increased population growth and urbanization and what those issues could mean for largely rural, agricultural and undeveloped portions of the county.

That unease could be seen particularly over the last year among residents of the hilly, and beautiful, southwestern portion of the county bordered by the Missouri River and stretching west to the Warren County line. The St. Charles County Council’s approval of a rezoning proposals allowing the development of a residential subdivision in the Missouri Bluffs area near the I-64 bridge along the Missouri River, a small brewery proposal, and even a wedding chapel in the hilly, largely rural portion of the county along Hwy. 94 near Augusta and Defiance have prompted spirited public debate.

Local wineries in the area that was designated in 1980 as the first American Viticulture area in the United States have been a major draw for tourists and for residents who often have homes on large lots. Those residents worry that the rural atmosphere of the area and their lifestyle will be negatively impacted by dangerous traffic on often narrow roads, too many new people and developers, and the loss of prime farmland.

As the council moves toward approving a new updated master plan for the county as early as the end of this month, some of that unease has resurfaced.

The master plan is mandated by the county charter and is a public decision-making guide that takes into account the relationship between land uses, housing, transportation, utilities, public health and well being, economic issues and education.

It was first adopted in 2008 and updated in 2013 as part of a 5-year update plan.

In April and May of 2018, County Executive Steve Ehlmann appointed a 21-member steering committee to guide the next update, to be known as “Master Plan Envision 2030.” The steering committee and public input suggest issues, come up with strategies to meet goals to deal with those issues, and provide data and information to help make decisions.

The plan is not a legal document; its role is advisory rather than mandatory. “Basically, it’s set up to provide a guideline for decision makers as [zoning] applications come forward,” said Michael Hurlbert, director of the county’s department of community development. Hurlbert’s department guides the update of the plan.

A draft of the 2030 plan came before the council for first reading on  Jan. 7. It drew worried comments from concerned residents who live in the southwestern portion of the county. But a vote on it is not expected until at least the council’s next scheduled meeting on Jan. 28.

“My point, really, on the master plan is that we review it every five years, and we spend a lot of time and put a lot of effort into it, and we draw these lines and say, ‘This is how we’re going to grow,’” said Dianne Sudbrock, a Foristell resident who spoke to the council about the plan. “And then, in five years, we creep the lines a litter farther south, we move the density a little farther south. My question is: where does it end and where do we want it to end?

“In 20 years, what is St. Charles County going to look like; what do we want it to look like?”

Residents like Sudbrock fear that the density of residential development is rising – and the plan may give credence to those fears. Maps in the draft suggest areas south of Hwy. N and near highways Z and D may be moving toward being developed at a denser three-acre minimum for residential lots.

“Do we want all of St. Charles County to look like O’Fallon, Wentzville, St. Peters? So wherever you look out across vistas, you see rooftops and retail signs,” Sudbrock said. “Or do we want to keep some of it agricultural? The answer is we want to keep some of it agricultural.

“How are you going to do that if every five years, you take away a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more. That’s my point.”

Don Meyer, a resident who lives near New Melle, agreed with Sudbrock. He noted that the county has done an excellent job in developing its park system but added that “the biggest park system we’ve got [are] the larger lots and the presence and image [those give] when people come to those areas.” He said part of the draw in the western and southwestern parts of the county are that “you can come out and have that privacy and have that feel.”

Meyer noted that larger municipalities could extend water and sewer lines into unincorporated areas to serve and attract more intensive residential and commercial development. If the county is interested in that development, it has to extend similar utility lines to those areas, he said, noting that he wasn’t a proponent of that.

“I think we have a jewel in our backyard and I think, with the oldest or one of oldest wine districts in the country, we need to protect that,” Meyer said. It needs to be the ultimate destination for visitors from throughout the country, he said.

“Look at what Napa [California] did in a relatively short time period. If we protect our resources and jewels out that way, it will be an international destination over time. We will be blessed because it’s so close to us.”

Meyer acknowledged that higher density might result in more tax dollars but also said that people he has talked to, who are attracted to the area, want larger acreage. “So the area is holding its own value,” he said. “I think maintaining our heritage is an important part of that portion of St. Charles County.”

Protecting the land

Ehlmann said residents at the hearing framed the discussion very well when they voiced concerns about density. But he said he’s not sure where density stops because the county is expected to continue to grow.

Some higher density residential is moving south of Hwy. N but, for now, it may not move further south. If there are new sewer and water lines there, it is probably not going to be anything but three-acre minimum lots, not five-acre minimum residential lots, Ehlmann said. That issue may come up if sewer and water lines become available in the Dardenne Creek and Femme Osage Creek watersheds, now served by wells and septic tanks.

Ehlmann suggested a revised land use map for the southwestern part of the county that shows hilly, wooded areas with 17- to 30-degree slopes being designated as agricultural land.

“My argument is that if an area has never been farmed it probably should never be developed,” Ehlmann said. “That’s the area where we need our five-acre lots. That’s an area where you have to make a good case to get three acres. A lot of trees would have to be cut down. That’s a resource we do need to preserve.”

At the Jan. 7 meeting, the council approved a motion to include the revised land use map in materials that the council will review on Jan. 28, its next Monday night meeting. Councilmember David Hammond [District 4] cast the only “no” in a voice vote on the motion.

Councilmember Joe Brazil [District 2] said he planned to suggest amending the 2030 master plan to include the new map. However, he also said that allowing some areas to have three-acre minimum lots also may serve as a “dam” to stop municipal annexations that could lead to more dense residential and other development.

Councilmember Joe Cronin [District 1] argued that not all largely rural areas of the county are the same. Farmers with large tracts of land in his area near St. Paul in the northwestern part of the county might opt to annex into nearby municipalities to obtain sewers and water lines that could increase the value of their property, he said.

“What we have in St. Charles County is an interesting mix of rural and suburban and there’s a little bit of urban,” Hurlbert said in a later interview. “That suburban-rural confluence, if you will, where is that line and how gray is that line?

“What we’re looking to do with this plan is to kind of firm up that line, that delineation between five-acre and three-acre development.”

Councilmembers seem to have bought into the county executive’s new land use map, but Hurlbert noted that an approved plan does mean that’s what going the happen.

“We didn’t start over and rewrite the plan, its an update,” Hurlbert said. It’s an exercise to see if the goals and strategies laid out years ago are still relevant, which they largely are, he said.

Addressing growth

Data, particularly projections concerning jobs, traffic, population and housing, are a significant part of the document.

“It’s important to know trends; to know where we’re heading and how to deal with that,” Hurlbert said.

Those trends largely have to do with growth, which isn’t slowing down. For example, the county’s population is expected to rise from 396,448 in 2018 to 470,437 in 2030. Those 74,000 new people will have a direct impact on development and land-use patterns. Most of that population growth may be in the Interstate 70 and Interstate 64 corridors, the update states.

The plan also projects that the county’s population is getting older, with the 65 and older age group rising from 13.4 percent in 2015 to 21.2 percent in 2030. Employment may rise to 250,912 jobs in 2030.

The plan also notes that 62 percent of workers now commute outside the county with a mean to-work travel time of 25.4 minutes. That prompts strategies encouraging economic development to bring more jobs into the county.

The data allowed the steering committee to suggest strategies and goals for meeting emerging trends. For example, suggestions include expanding water and sanitary sewer service to areas with potential for economic development, promoting development along I-70, discouraging the development of septic systems, improving both roads and the efficiency of the county’s transportation system, and land-use decisions that may impact zoning decisions.

The plan also suggests addressing the county’s lack of a viable public transit [bus or rail] system. It also suggests developing a county-wide bicycle and pedestrian master plan to connect trails, parks, schools and libraries.

Ehlmann suggested the council consider another possible revision in the master plan. He said the plan and updates tend to include suggestions for adding more retail development. “Brick and mortar retail stores are not growing,” he said. “And the question is if they are not growing do we need to add as much commercial area?”

The amount of retail space available in the county is holding its own compared with other parts of the region but it’s less than last year, Ehlmann said.

“The reason we’re staying steady is that we are growing,” he said. “If we weren’t growing, I’m not sure we wouldn’t be having a very severe problem.”

More people are using the internet for shopping, which cuts the amount of sale tax revenue available because sale tax isn’t charged on most internet purchases, Ehlmann said. Sales tax revenue is a major source of funding for government services.

Elhmann said expenditures for Christmas was up 5 percent across the country, which is good. “But usage of the internet went up 19 percent,” he added.

Cronin said another issue with retail is not so much building space but land usage. Businesses now need more parking than before, he said.

Ehlmann said the issue deserves more discussion.

“If 20,000 people moving here have no need of brick and motor shops, maybe some of that space should be left for residential or agricultural zoning,” he said.

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