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Oakville residents pack planning commission hearing to decry senior facility

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2013 - As expected, the St. Louis County Planning Commission won’t make a recommendation on the future of a low-income senior facility in Oakville.

The announcement came before hundreds of people from the south St. Louis County community showed up in Clayton to speak out against the facility, which is under construction.

The nine-member commission held an unprecedented re-hearing of a three-story, 44-unit facility on Telegraph Road. The National Church Residences’ facility is being funded by a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Planning Commission chairman Wayne Hilzinger announced before the meeting began that the commission wouldn’t be making a recommendation on whether to reverse the project’s zoning designation until August. That corresponds with what he told the Beacon last week.

The vast majority of the crowd – some of whom were bused in from the south St. Louis County township – spoke out against the proposal. Every single seat in the council chambers was filled – and dozens more waited outside to fill the seats of departing audience members.

Besides Oakville residents, some speakers against the facility included elected officials, an attorney for the nearby Goddard School and a representative from the Monastery of St. Clare.

Sister Mary Michael – a spokeswoman for the community of cloistered nuns – read a letter from the nuns that expressed concerns about “our privacy, lights, noises, a fence, trash, foot traffic and possible accidents.”

“We are praying that they can find another piece of land in a much better location,” she said.

Only a handful of speakers spoke in favor of the proposal. They included employees and residents of nearby National Church Residences facilities.

“It’s a secure building, I’m safe there,” said Vickie Schwartzenberger, a resident of a NCR facility in St. Peters. “We are right next door to [a day care]. And those children love to come to our building.”

The next planning meeting is at 6 p.m., Aug. 5. The St. Louis County Council will make the final decision on the facility.

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

In Wayne Hilzinger’s view, St. Louis County’s Planning Commission will be venturing into profoundly uncharted territory on Monday when it takes a low-income senior facility in Oakville up for consideration.

Hilzinger, the chairman of the commission and an Oakville resident, told the Beacon he’s never seen a project spark such outcry and opposition after the St. Louis County Council unanimously gave its OK. And he’s never seen a backlash strong enough to send a project back to St. Louis County’s planning commission.

“Never have we seen one come back,” said Hilzinger, who’s served on the commission on and off since the 1990s.

“We on the council took extraordinary action around that extraordinary situation,” said Councilman Steve Stenger, an Affton Democrat who represents Oakville on the St. Louis County Council. “And it is a very, very, very, very, very rare situation that this would be sent back to planning.”

Some public officials and Oakville residents want the project scuttled, arguing that the county didn’t properly inform nearby residents and businesses. They contend the structure is obtrusive, especially since the facility is located close to a pre-school and convent.

“It’s not who they are or what they are,” said Cindy Pyatt, the owner of the adjacent Goddard School. “It’s just that the project’s too big.”

But others contend that the fracas is setting a bad precedent for development in St. Louis County – and leaving the county vulnerable to legal damages. They vigorously dispute that there wasn’t adequate notice given, adding that the project's opponents are essentially asking for a potentially costly do-over.

“I believe that there is no flaw in the system in which we did in the review,” Dooley said. “It was done properly. All the procedures were done. All the ‘Is’ were dotted, all the ‘Ts’ were crossed. We did even more than what was necessary for this process – and we believe it was a good process.”

The county’s Planning Commissionis set to meet at 7 p.m. on Monday in the County Council chamber to hear from the public. After the commission decides in August whether to reverse the project's zoning designation, it’ll be up to the St. Louis County Council to make any further decisions.

And even that may not end the fight, which may be headed for the courtroom.

Calm before the storm

The structure in question is being built by National Church Residences, a Columbus, Ohio-based not-for-profit that operates low and moderate income senior housing in 28 states and Puerto Rico.

According to the fact sheet sent to the Beacon by National Church Residences, the $5.2 million facility will have 44 540-square feet one-bedroom units and one two-bedroom manager’s unit. The all-brick LEED-certified building will encompass 41,778 square feet.

Karen Twinem, a company spokeswoman, said to qualify for the facility, a single person must be 62 years or older and have an income of $24,250 or less. A couple must have a combined income of $27,700 or less. Each one-bedroom unit can accommodate two people, although she said that the vast majority will have one person.

“Most of these folks that live in communities come from the community where the place is located,” said Twinem, who noted the average resident in their facilities is a 79-year-old woman. “An awful lot of people end up exhausting their savings when they hit their late 70s, 80s and 90s. And when their husbands die, widows -- most of our people by a long shot are widows – often find their Social Security is cut and they need a place to go.”

“So we are creating a very nice property for these people,” she added.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a $6.77 million grant the land purchase and construction. Twinem said a 40-year agreement is in place to maintain the structure as a low-income senior facility.

“Unfortunately, affordable senior housing is going to become more and more important over time,” Twinem said. “Because people are not going to be able to save enough to live to be 90 years old, especially if they don’t have a pension. That’s who’s going to be in these facilities -- literally the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of Oakville are going to be living in this facility.”

While the St. Louis County Council typically encounters a few controversial ordinances every year, most of its business consists of mundane items that receive unanimous support. The ordinance authorizing the senior center first appeared to fall into this category.

Hilzinger said that project had no opposition during the planning and zoning process. After the County Council passed it with no opposition, Dooley signed the measure into law.

Stenger – who sponsored the ordinance – told the Beacon that he wrote a letter in 2011 in support of HUD funding for the development. He said the planning commission’s report showing no opposition was a big factor in moving the project through the county council.

“My belief -- and my reasonable belief -- was that there was no opposition. And I think it was well-founded,” Stenger said. “And it’s not a situation where council people call around into a district when there’s no opposition to something. It’s just not something that’s done. Because who would you call? You would, I think, reasonably assume that the parties directly adjacent to the property saw the sign.”

After-the-fact opposition

But all tranquility about the project was essentially shattered when a sign went up next to the Goddard School, a private pre-school that serves children from infancy to age 6.

One of the people Pyatt contacted almost immediately was state Rep. Marsha Haefner, an Oakville Republican whose granddaughter attended Goddard School. Both Haefner and state Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, have spoken out in favor of a new hearing for the project.

Both Pyatt and Haefner also say the building is a poor fit for the area, considering its proximity to Goddard School and a nearby convent.

“The scope of the project is too large for the tract of land,” Pyatt said. “When you stand on my playground, I sit a good three feet below their elevation. And when you look up 45 feet, it’s awful. Our fences will be so close together that a person will not be able to walk between the fences with a weed eater to maintain the grass. They’re that close to us.”

Pyatt said that she didn’t receive any notifications about the hearings over the facility. And Haefner said she's heard similar complaints from many constituents.

“Some people want to make it the issue that people in Oakville don’t want housing for low-income people. And that is something I really distance myself from,” Haefner said. “Because to me, the biggest issue and the only issue is due process. And this project came to Oakville without any input from the public, which are going to be impacted by the building.”

Dooley emphasized that all notification procedures were followed. He said in June that several hundred postcards were sent out to residents and that the public had several chances to speak out against the project.

Dooley also noted information about the project was printed in the St. Louis Countian, a legal publication that’s a repository for public notices. Both Haefner and Pyatt said that the St. Louis Countian is a low-circulation publication read primarily by attorneys and real estate investors. And they added it's unlikely anybody in Oakville saw the notice.

Stenger said the fact that a standing-room only crowd earlier this summer at Oakville High School claimed that they didn’t know about the project is evidence that notification procedures broke down in this instance.

“I’m not pointing any fingers,” Stenger said. “But when the people claim that they’re uninformed and they believe they’re uninformed, then how can you have an informed will? Well, I’ll tell you, we heard what the informed will was. They packed auditoriums. Once they knew what the development was, it was very clear that they were vehemently opposed to it.”

Had he heard “that vehement opposition,” Stenger said he wouldn’t have put the measure before the council.

“I would have known from the planning commission that this was not a project that they wanted,” Stenger said. “And in that case, even though I thought it was a good project, I would not substitute my will for theirs. I can’t. I can’t. Not when it’s 95 percent to 5.”

Back to the drawing board

Stenger sponsored a resolution to send the project back to the planning commission, a move approved by a vote of 5-1.

But the county’s planning commission can only issue recommendations. If, for instance, it recommends a stop to the project, the council would need to vote to follow through.

“They can accept our recommendation or reject it. It’s still going to take council action to reverse it,” Hilzinger said. “The council doesn’t have to do anything to uphold it.”

Regardless of whether the council decides to change the facility’s zoning designation, it’s possible that this fight could end up in the courtroom. Twinem noted that her company has already spent over $1 million on the project.

While Twinem said her company would wait to see what happens before any litigation is filed, she added the situation is “unprecedented.”

“We’re just taking it one step at a time. But we did work in good faith with the county,” Twinem said. “You can probably talk to any builder in your county about how they would feel about a property being rezoned after they have started building it. And it’s been two years going through the process. We’ve invested a whole lot of money in it.”

Hilzinger said National Church Residences’ reaction isn’t completely unreasonable. He added, “I really doubt that they would walk away and be happy" to spend what they've spent.

But he also said that the prospect of a lawsuit would have no bearing on the commission’s decision-making. Their main focus, he said, is to decide whether a piece of land is being used properly.

“The economics of a project is not our charge," Hilzinger said.

Dooley has declined to say whether he would exercise his veto if an ordinance passes, adding that he doesn’t want to influence the process unduly. Five councilmembers voted to send the matter to the planning commission – the exact number needed to override.

Throwing rocks

While many opponents focus on inadequate notification and the scope of the project, some who spoke out a June county council meeting expressed concerns about the potential residents of the facility.

Some at last month’s council meeting questioned whether sex offenders or non-seniors would live in the facility. One speaker at least month’s council meeting -- Richard Dohack -- said that he has “an issue with anyone I don’t know being able to look down at my son on that playground every single day.”

Twinem said that each potential resident is screened for criminal history, including sex offenses. National Church Residences senior project leader Eric Walker told the Beacon that registered sex offenders cannot live within 1,000 feet of any public or private school or childcare facility.

Twinem also said she has only one example in the St. Louis area of somebody under 18 staying in a 540-square-foot unit with a senior – a 4-year-old girl.

The fact sheet states that any resident who is 18 or older, such as a spouse, child or live-in aide, must be screened. Adult children of residents are not eligible to move into a unit after the initial occupancy -- unless they are performing the functions of a live-in aide.

“I have actually received just as many calls from people asking how they can get their parents or themselves on the waiting lists as people who are angry,” Twinem said. “They’re not going to speak up because I think they’re frightened by what they’re seeing frankly.”

Dooley also pushed back against contentions that the potential residents of the facility will be dangerous.

“They have to have an income. It’s not homeless people there. It’s not pedophiles there. Nobody’s going to attack kids there,” Dooley said. “These are senior citizens that want to live in proximity to where they live now. That’s all it is.”

Both Stenger and Haefner emphasized their issue is with inadequate notification – not fears about the residents.

Stenger said he supported the plan because “it would be great for low-income seniors to have a place to live and that they can stay and remain in their own community where they had lived their lives.”

“I think it is fantastic for them. I still think it is a good development. I still do,” he said. “But once again, I can’t substitute one person’s thinking – which is my thinking – for the opinion of thousands. And those thousands of people are people that I represent and those thousands are the individuals that live in the community where this development is going to be located.”

And Haefner said, “Some people want to make it the issue that people in Oakville don’t want housing for low-income people – and that is something I really distance myself from.” She added she “would welcome the chance to help find an appropriate site to build this if this is where the need is.” That includes, she said, a site in Oakville.

Big impact?

Dooley said that reversing the zoning designation could have a larger impact than a lawsuit, tarnishing “the procedure and the process of St. Louis County.”

“When people come to St. Louis County to do business, they want to believe if they go through the process and do what they’re supposed to do, it is a good project and they’re willing to move forward,” Dooley said. “This would put a taint on St. Louis County.”

But Stenger said that this isn’t a precedent-setting circumstance, adding that the mechanism used to send the matter back to the planning commission is “rarely used.”

“And I think that’s appropriate,” Stenger said. “But this is a situation where you have a whole community that came forward and said ‘we don’t want this development and we’re speaking out about it now because we didn’t know about it then.’ It shouldn’t be overlooked. It can’t be overlooked. And that’s why that tool is available.”

Both Stenger and Haefner say they hope the situation prompts the county to do a better job of notifying its residents about government.

“It’s not as if we’re coming back saying ‘we changed our mind – we don’t want this process,’” Haefner said. “We didn’t know. And secondly, precedents have to be made by someone. And maybe this will be the new standard for development. Maybe this needs to be how we move forward with changing zoning – learning from this. Because the consequences of it.”

“St. Louis County messed up,” she said. “And they need to make it right.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.