St. Charles County is fortunate to have decades of economic prosperity. The county continues to rank as one of fastest growing in the state and the third largest in Missouri for both population and economic share. Following is the first of a series on how the County, municipalities and businesses have managed and encouraged growth in the 1970s-2000s. This month, we’ll look at residential development.
St. Charles County had led the St. Louis metropolitan area with 5,105 housing permits in 1984. Those numbers dropped toward the end of the decade, but single-family housing remained strong. The county surpassed St. Louis County in new home starts for the first time in 1995, and accounted for 40 percent of the homes built in the metropolitan region from 1999 until 2002, a year in which almost 4,000 new homes were built in St. Charles County.1 The Journal commented, “With all these people coming here, local governments had to grapple with providing a better quality of life for them.”2 While St. Charles County did not reach one billion dollars in assessed valuation until 1985, it crossed the two billion dollar threshold eight years later in 1993. It took only five years to reach three billion in 1998, three more years to reach four billion in 2001, two years to reach five billion in 2003 another two years to reach six billion in 2005 and two more years to reach seven billion in 2007. The nature and location of jobs continued to change after 1985, as the transition to a “post-industrial society” was nearly complete in St. Charles County. While the majority of the acreage in the county continued to be used for agriculture, and industrial manufacturing continued apace, most of the growth was in the high-tech and service sectors of the economy. David Leezer, former Director of Business Development for the EDC, explained in 2003, “America has moved from a manufacturing-based economy to an information/technology-based economy. St. Charles County has adjusted with that shift – much of the Midwest has not.”3 The county was also shedding its bedroom community reputation. While the number of jobs in the county increased by 50 percent in the period from 1978 to 1988, over 70 percent of the county workforce worked outside the county. By 2008, only 50 percent of the 338,000 people who resided in St. Charles County worked elsewhere. Transportation improvements, along with better recreational and cultural facilities, led to significant improvements in the lifestyle of county residents.4
By 1985, the national economy was booming and so was single-family residential housing in St. Charles County. While housing starts lagged during the recession of the late 1980’s, residential construction boomed again during the 1990s, and the average price of a new home was $132,548 by 1995. Homebuilder Herb Lesser explained that St. Charles County was, “no longer a market exclusively for first-time buyers, and in fact first time buyers are being priced out of the market. That trend will continue. There’s no going back. Ground prices are up.”5 Indeed, the average price of a new home was $174,882 by 2000. The county’s blue-collar image changed by 2005, when the average new home price reached $209,015.6
Weldon Spring departed from the norm for cities in St. Charles County. Missouri courts had held in 1970 that single-use zoning was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable, and several communities in west St. Louis County were practicing exclusionary zoning by 1985. While St. Charles, St. Peters, O’Fallon and Wentzville provided basic infrastructure, full municipal services, and housing for all economic classes, when Weldon Spring became a fourth-class city in 1990, it provided no sewer and water, and was contracting with St. Charles County to provide sheriff’s patrols and maintain streets. When it adopted its master plan in 1991, the city made clear its intention to allow only large-lot development. When smaller lots were approved, they were in exclusive subdivisions like the Whitmoor, which contained 620 homes and an 18-hole golf course. Residents approved a one-half cent sales tax, and the city established a city park and opened a city hall in 1999. While Weldon Spring was the wealthiest community in St. Charles County with a median household income of $94,000, the residents paid no property taxes to the city. When the city tried to annex the University of Missouri Research Park in 2008, there were no residents in the park to vote against the annexation. While Mayor Don Licklider explained that the park would get municipal maintenance and police protection from expanded County Sheriff’s patrols, Nike, a tenant in the park, filed a lawsuit claiming the city was not able to provide normal municipal services within a reasonable time, and the city dropped the annexation effort. Nevertheless, the city continued to grow, and became the site of Troop C Headquarters of the Missouri Highway Patrol in 2008.7
Citizens pressured other small municipalities to be like Weldon Spring. While 75 percent of the homes in St. Charles were owner-occupied in 1916, the percentage had risen to 83 for the county by 2000. The population of Cottleville, long incorporated, grew 124.3 percent in the first half of the 1990’s. However, with no city hall or municipal services, all it could offer its residents was local control of development through exclusionary zoning. A decade later, while the city had built a city hall and was providing some municipal services, local control of zoning continued to be the best argument for annexation to the city. When Cottleville attempted to involuntarily annex Timberwood Trails Subdivision in 2007, most of the discussion was about the additional taxes that would be paid, and the level of municipal services the city would provide. Mayor Don Yarber pointed out that the residents had no say in development that was occurring in their back yards, and explained, “What I ask you to consider is to put a value on representation.”8 The annexation was voted down.
The municipal government of Dardenne Prairie grew from 735 to 4,384 during the 1990s. Voluntary annexations into O’Fallon split the city, and some talked of disincorporation. Further growth, along with the leadership of Mayor Pam Fogarty, first elected in 2005, insured the survival of the city. O’Fallon deannexed Barat Haven, a commercial and residential development, thus allowing Dardenne Prairie to annex it and bring some order to its boundaries in 2005. Under Fogarty’s leadership, the community experienced commercial development and built a city hall. New Melle became a fourth-class city in 1999 but, with only 124 residents, provided no services. Those who voluntarily annexed did so only to make sure that high-density development did not occur. When O’Fallon talked about annexing the Busch Wildlife Area in 2007, New Melle was already working on defensive measures to block expansion by Wentzville, Lake Saint Louis and O’Fallon. Mayor Jan Muskopf explained, “We did it to protect the area because what the people want in this area is the rural, small town.”9 Like-minded property owners, wanting to avoid high-density development by O’Fallon, voluntarily annexed into St. Paul, which had 1,634 residents in 2000. Nevertheless, St. Paul did approve a one-half acre lot development, and began working to bring sewers to the community. By the new century, Josephville, with 270 residents, and Flint Hill, with 379 residents, also accepting voluntary annexations to block expansion by Wentzville, which allowed high-density development. While the discussion was always about density, the effect was not only to exclude multi-family and low-income housing, but also middle-class homeowners, who could not afford to purchase three acres or more of land. Each small municipality wanted to become the next Weldon Spring, rather than the next St. Peters, which had spurred growth in the 1970’s by building necessary infrastructure. Each sought to use zoning, which had been used in St. Peters, O’Fallon and Wentzville to protect the property value of neighborhoods by keeping residential and commercial uses segregated, to exclude certain residential, and most commercial, uses from the community entirely. This was possible largely because county government continued contracts with these communities to provide services, allowing them to be little more than local zoning boards.10
Looking to Wildwood in St. Louis County as an example, residents of southwest St. Charles County petitioned the County Council to incorporate Boones Wilderness. Finding that the proposed community, with far fewer people over a much larger area, would not be able to provide services within a reasonable period of time, the County Council denied the petition, and Circuit Judge Nancy Schneider upheld their decision. The earlier trend, high-priced homes on three-acre lots in agriculturally zoned areas of unincorporated St. Charles County, continued in the southwest part of the county and elsewhere. By 1999, the average cost of a new residential unit in the county (exclusive of lot cost) was approximately $107,562, while the average cost in the unincorporated areas was approximately $157,134.
The houses were not only bigger, there were more of them. Between 1978 and 1998, St. Peters saw an average of two-and-one-half new structures per day. O’Fallon, with 37 percent of the new housing starts in the county by 1997, was the fastest growing municipality in the state, adding more than 41,000 residents between 1995 and 2005. During that time, the city also added 1,500 businesses and 20,000 jobs. Economies of scale allowed the city to reduce the property tax rate from 94 to 82 cents, while actually increasing services to its residences. O’Fallon set a new record in 1999 for single-family residential housing starts in one year in St. Charles County. The 2,158 new residential units built in the city that year represented 51 percent of the total for the entire county. Numerous property owners near the southern city limit agreed to voluntarily annex in 2001 and 2002 when O’Fallon promised to waive future sewer and water tap-on fees and grant favorable zoning. Developers were just as aggressive. After O’Fallon approved plans in 2003 for Highland Green Subdivision, on the north side of the city, developers approached the County Council to vacate a length of Koch Road, which they did. While the matter was under appeal in the Circuit Court, the developer simply took out the road before a final decision.11
Wentzville, with a population of 6,896 in 2000, was the next municipality to experience extensive growth, as new subdivisions were built north and south of I-70. With 950 new single-family housing permits, the city had over $140 million in new construction by 2002. Not to be outdone by O’Fallon, Wentzville went to great lengths to promote residential development within the city. Residential growth ensured retail commercial growth and tax revenue for the city, which had an operating budget over 33 million dollars by 2003. That year, Wentzville condemned a 10-foot-wide 2,038-foot long strip across a farm to create contiguity so the city could annex land which the owner wanted to develop.12
Even St. Charles experienced new residential growth and provided incentives to developers. Whitaker Homes began construction of New Town, a 4,300-home project in the old St. Charles common fields near Elm Point. The “new urbanist” design was reminiscent of pre-World War II housing. A spokesman for Whitaker Homes said,” It’s a return for some segments of the population to living simpler, living with less, a more community feel. New Town will not hold look-at-me, showoff houses.”13 When it approved the shorter setback requirements for the New Town development, St. Charles also agreed not to raise tap-on fees during the building of the development and allowed the developer to buy materials for streets without paying sales tax. Other new developments also sprang up in St. Charles south of I-70, including a single-family subdivision on the former St. Charles Golf Course. The same year, T. R. Hughes Inc. purchased St. Andrews Golf Course, the last remaining public course in St. Charles. When the St. Charles City Council rejected his rezoning request, T.R. Hughes Inc. kept the ground unincorporated, and the County Council approved his rezoning.14
Unlike previous decades, not all the growth was residential. By 1998, the Journal explained, “Political and civic leaders (in St. Louis) must recognize St. Charles County is no longer is content with being a bedroom community. The county has long desired to expand its own economic foundation and job base. As St. Charles County’s population has increased, so has its ability to lure more business and industry.”15 While residential construction topped $87 million in 2000, commercial construction was right behind, exceeding $70 million, as the county was also losing its reputation as a “bedroom community.” In next month’s “A Look Back with the County Executive,” we will cover business development and growth in the county.
1. St. Louis Business Journal, Jan. 24-30, 2003.
2. Journal, Jan. 3, 1990.
3. St. Charles County Business Record, May 1, 2003.
5. St.Charles Post, July 25, 1995.
6. Post-Dispatch, Oct. 11, 2005.
7. McDermott vs. Calverton Park, 454 SW2d 577, 1970; Post-Dispatch, Aug. 23, 1999, Oct. 27, 2006, March 1, 2008. Reflecting the increasing wealth of new-comers to the county, an 18-hole golf course opened in Lake Saint Louis in 1985, and Bogey Hills Country Club spent $2.5 million in 1991 to remodel its clubhouse and improve the course.
8. Post-Dispatch, March 16, 2007.
10. To meet the exclusionary zoning problem, Senator Ehlmann sponsored legislation to ensure that incorporators show intent to have a real community where all classes of people are welcome to live. He stated, “One of our strengths in St. Charles County, with our large municipalities, is that we have housing for all economic classes. When a person is successful, they do not have to move out of their community to live in a bigger house.”
11.Report by the Office of Social and Economic Data, University of Missouri Outreach And Extension. U.S. Bureau of the Census File 1, 2000 Decennial Census; St. Charles Post, November 13, 1997; Post-Dispatch, Feb. 14, 2005, Oct. 11, 2006 and July 18, 2005.
12. Post-Dispatch, Feb. 19, 2007.
13. St. Charles County Post, Oct. 23, 2003.
14. Ibid., Dec. 16, 2002.
15. Journal, March 11, 1998.