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Maryland Heights Board Rejects Proposal To Finance Levees And Pumps Near Missouri River

Mitch Leachman of the St. Louis Audubon Society spoke against a proposal to use tax increment financing to pay for pumps and levees in a low-lying area in Maryland Heights.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
The Maryland Heights TIF Commission will not recommend a plan to finance the construction of pumps and levees in a 2,400-acre area near the Missouri River.

The Maryland Heights TIF Commission has rejected a controversial plan to build pumps to drain a frequently flooded area near the Missouri River. 

Commission members voted 7-5 Friday against recommending that the Maryland Heights City Council approve the city’s plan to create a $151 million tax increment financing district. City officials proposed using the TIF district to pay for pumps and levees in a 2,409-acre area called the Maryland Park Lake District.

Area landowners supported the plan to build infrastructure to control flooding. Environmentalists opposed it, saying that it will lead to development that will worsen flooding in the St. Louis region.

A majority of the commission agreed. 

“The current approach of using tax increment financing to fund a development in a large green space that’s also a floodplain is a plan we will not support,” said Paul Hampel, a member of the TIF Commission. 

Allowing developers to use revenues generated by rising property values and two possible sales taxes to fund redevelopment could have helped Maryland Heights officials transform the area, which they argue has suffered from blight. The city had envisioned $1.23 billion in home, business and industrial construction projects. 

“It’s disheartening for the city, it’s disheartening for the landowners in the bottoms,” said Jim Carver, the city’s economic development manager. 

Many environmentalists and county residents spoke in opposition to the Maryland Heights TIF proposal at recent public hearings. Developing the Maryland Park Lake District would increase flood risk to communities in St. Louis, said David Stokes, executive director of environmental advocacy nonprofit Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. 

“We just had a major flood, and for people to respond to that and say, 'Hey, maybe a giant floodplain development is not such a good idea now,'” Stokes said. “[The TIF Commission’s decision] is good for taxpayers, it’s great for the environment.” 

The City Council could still approve a restricted version of the TIF plan. While tax dollars would not be used to pay for pumps or roads, the financing method could pay for demolitions or work to raise levees, Carver said. 

Landowners formed the Howard Bend Levee District in the area in the late 1980s and taxed themselves to build levees that can protect against 500-year floods. Many of the property owners have wanted to see the low-lying area developed to help offset their levee taxes.

Some communities along the Missouri River experienced record floods this year. The National Weather Service forecasts above-normal precipitation in upper Midwestern states this winter, and meteorologists are concerned there could be more flooding in the Missouri River basin next spring.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.