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To develop or not to develop – the question of what to do with flood plains


By SUSAN SAGARRA

The economic growth in Chesterfield Valley is considered one of the most incredible recoveries following the devastating Flood of 1993. The levee was improved to a 500-year flood level and in the late 1990s, major retail development replaced flood waters. Today, Chesterfield Valley boasts the longest strip mall in America, a full two miles of development.

“It stands out as a resounding success story,” said Libbey Tucker, Chesterfield’s assistant city administrator for community services and economic development. “It’s an amazing comeback story. The area has grown tremendously and the fear [of flooding] has been alleviated. The levee is well-maintained and the levee district constantly monitors it. No one can guarantee that it won’t flood but the levee is built to a standard that we don’t expect it to flood.”

However, despite the economic success of the Valley, there are those who say that continually increasing levees heights and choking the natural flow of river waters is harmful to the region. Additionally, some say allowing major development in flood-prone areas causes more harm than good, particularly when those developments are built with the use of taxpayer-funded subsidies.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann is among those vocal opponents of flood plain development. Ehlmann made news this spring when he suggested that a proposed Maryland Heights development should be halted before it even gets started.

Ehlmann’s statement and a St. Charles County Council resolution on Feb. 29 came just after Maryland Heights’ City Council passed a resolution Feb. 4 authorizing city staff to seek requests for proposals for redevelopment projects within the 1,800-acre Maryland Park Lake District. The deadline for submitting those proposals has been extended twice since then, first to May 31 and then, on May 24, to June 30. The latest extension is said to have been made to give potential Lake District developers time to consider the impacts of a proposed ice rink that could be built near Creve Coeur Lake Park.

 

Land and levees

Chesterfield Valley serves as the benchmark of post-flood success.

According to data from the city of Chesterfield’s community services and economic development department, prior to the 1993 flood, there were 240 businesses in Chesterfield Valley. As of December 2015, there were 1,071 licensed businesses in the Valley, representing 46 percent of total licensed businesses in the municipality.

In 1994, the city of Chesterfield created the Chesterfield Valley Tax Increment Financing [TIF] District with a spending cap of $72.5 million. Because of the accelerated growth in the Chesterfield Valley, the TIF was retired 10 years early, in late 2007. The funding for the TIF was earmarked for the following public infrastructure:

  • $21.27 million of levee improvements
  • $29.894 million of road and highway improvements
  • $9.77 million of stormwater drainage improvements
  • $10.853 million of utility improvements [sanitary and water systems]
  • $720,000 in professional services

Because of the Valley’s successful recovery, excess TIF revenues began to pass through to the underlying taxing districts in 2002. In 2006, the Rockwood School District received $566,125 and the Monarch Fire Protection District received $133,294 as pass-through funds. Following the retirement of the TIF, those districts respectively received $6.6 million and $1.49 million annually.

The Valley’s success is due, in part, to the confidence business owners place in the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee, one of two major levees in West St. Louis County.

David Human, executive director of the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee District, said the district makes constant improvements to the levee and currently is working on widening the levee in the area north of Interstate 64.

“We are adding another 10 feet of clay to widen it and reduce risk. It’s a totally preventative measure,” David said. “It’s already above the 500-year levee there but we constantly monitor and make improvements to make sure the property is protected in the Valley.”

He said the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee had a slight test of its system during last December’s torrential rains, but the issue was with the internal drainage system and not the levee.

“One of the pumps that protects the city’s ball fields went down,” David said. “The water wasn’t rising but it wasn’t dropping either. It was an internal event where we had 9 inches for 72 hours.”

While it is impossible to say whether major flooding could occur again and devastate Chesterfield Valley, David is fairly confident that everything will be OK.

“I don’t say we will never see something of that magnitude again in our lifetime,” David said. “We just continue to improve the levee and protect the investment in the Valley. It’s a continuous operation to try and make sure we don’t have another such event.”

He bristles at some experts’ suggestion that Chesterfield’s elevated levee somehow contributed to  December’s flooding.

“They might as well say we caused the flooding in Jefferson City and Minnesota,” David said. “It was a very heavy rain and it overwhelmed the Meramec River watershed. The water that created elevations were in the Meramec watershed, and backup from the Mississippi River. It inundated that watershed.”

David’s brother Dan Human is the executive director of West County’s other major levee system. The Howard Bend Levee, which runs the length of the Missouri River from the Riverport area [Editor’s note: formerly read Westport area] to Chesterfield, protects the Maryland Park Lake District, which many believe is ripe for development.

The area was highly prone to flooding 30 years ago, according to Dan, but not today. Local landowners, he said, “formed the district and invested substantially in constructing the levee to a 500-year levee, which is the gold standard of the region.”

“It actually was built considerably higher than that. It can be considered a 1,000-year levee,” Dan said.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a 100-year or 500-year levee means that the area has a 1 percent or less change of a flood occurring in any given year.

“For Howard Bend, we have a one-tenth of 1 percent chance in any given year of a flood occurring that would exceed the design elevation of the levee,” Dan said. “Our levee is actually 3 feet higher than that, sort of as a fail-safe measure.”

 

Taxes and topography

For Ehlmann and others, the debate around flood plains and levees is not limited to simply protecting land in one specific area. They also worry about what happens when water is restricted and redirected.

During a Progress 64 West meeting this spring, Ehlmann joked that “St. Charles County is going to build a 10-foot wall and make St. Louis County pay for it” if the county continues allowing tax-incentivized developments in flood-prone areas. He later said in an interview with West Newsmagazine that in the 1970s, the federal government required St. Charles County to participate in the federal flood insurance program, which included adopting an ordinance that development could not occur in floodways.

“We were totally duped,” Ehlmann said. “The way the floodways were drawn, existing levees in St. Louis County were not in the floodways, but St. Charles County’s were so we could not build or improve. St. Louis County has been able to build and raise their levees as high and have as many as they want. That was the beginning of the problem for St. Charles County being affected by flooding as a result of development in flood-prone areas in St. Louis County that are protected by bigger levees.”

Ehlmann said that while “Maryland Heights and Chesterfield argue that the existing and proposed developments are behind strong levees that are plenty high,” they are not as high as they were before new federal flood plain maps were released last year.

“They [the levees] now provide 2 feet less protection than previously thought,” Ehlmann said.

In addition to lowering levee heights, the revamped flood maps also placed some homes into a 100-year flood plain designation for the first time.

“The federal government mandated that some people in St. Charles County who bought land that was not in a flood plain now are in a flood plain and that means they have to have federal flood insurance,” St. Charles County Councilmember Joe Brazil [District 2] explained. “It is an unfunded mandate that affects thousands of people who bought houses in good faith. If these people want to make improvements to their properties, like build a garage, they now will have to raise it 7 feet or get special consideration to do it because it’s now in a flood plain.

“The state and federal governments have to not allow any more levees and cities have to stop allowing tax incentives. It might help some people, but it affects others negatively and takes away property rights.”

Ehlmann said that tax subsidies given for development, not only in flood plains but throughout the metropolitan area for all kinds of projects, are damaging to the region.

“There is nothing illegal about flood plain development,” Ehlmann said. “I just don’t think a city should be able to take tax subsidies away from the county, or fire districts, or school districts for any project. We need TIF reform. We’ve all been stealing customers from each other for 20 years using tax dollars and we need to stop. It is not providing the promised jobs and is just shifting the money around, with taxpayers on the hook no matter what.

“I am not in favor of tax incentives for retail development,” he continued. “TIFs were supposed to be used for areas that are declared blighted. And they can help in areas that are truly blighted, where slums should be torn down for economic development. But blight is overused now and everything can be declared blighted. It boggles my mind that people are so opposed to using tax incentives for a football stadium but they aren’t outraged about using it for developments in flood plains. Why should government help certain big businesses and not others? It puts the mom and pop places out of business and the schools don’t get their property tax money. It’s bad public policy.”

Organizations such as the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance [GRHA] also remain steadfast against further increases in levee heights and providing tax subsidies to develop in flood-prone areas.

David Stokes, executive director of GRHA, said that the organization was formed in 2000 to fight against “unwarranted” development in St. Louis, St. Charles and Lincoln counties, the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers.

“By developing in flood plains, we are making flooding worse in our region,” Stokes said. “The way the region has built levees and built up flood plain areas has taken away the area for water to naturally flow, even areas protected by a levee. Of course the heavy rain had something to do [with December], but we have so channelized the rivers that it has nowhere to go. Just because it [the land] is protected by a levee, it doesn’t have to be developed. We can leave it as land to take the overflow of water. You might build a levee to protect your property, but that just means the river goes to others who aren’t protected.”

Of the Maryland Park Lake District, Stokes said it is “a good use for farming purposes. They don’t have to put a big development in there.”

 

Rain and rising rivers

While others dispute the connection between levee heights in one region and flooding in another, Robert Criss, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, said “there is no question that development in flood plains contributed” to the record flooding in December. He specifically blames an elevated levee in Valley Park.

In an interview with West Newsmagazine, Criss said that concerns about flooding due to higher levees actually dates back to 1852, when an extensive report was delivered to Congress.

“The report said that we can’t keep building levees higher and higher,” Criss said. “The rivers have to have some place to go yet we continue to build in low-lying areas. It’s fine to have high walls around some areas, but in St. Louis County, we are walling off what little is left.” He noted that historically, farms have existed in low-lying areas, but that having homes and commercial buildings in low-lying areas is “foolhardy, bad planning and exposes people.”

He said that despite the designations given for levees built at 100-year and 500-year flood levels, there really is no such thing.

“There is no such thing as a 100-year levee; we don’t know if it’s going to hold when the water comes through,” Criss said. “Because of the increase in water levels over the years, we can’t say they will hold. The levees also require extensive maintenance because the structures degrade and the upkeep is expensive.

“We keep narrowing the river channels and [in December] we set all-time records on the Mississippi and Meramec rivers. In Valley Park, they built the levee 9 feet above the 100-year stage. In December, it came within inches of being topped. It’s a foolish game. There are consequences of protecting areas because it makes the water higher elsewhere.”

In the wake of December’s flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a statement that the levees “performed as designed.”

“The region experienced a massive 50-75-mile wide storm system … producing 6- to 12-inch rainfall totals,” the statement read. “Dec. 26, 2015, was the third-wettest day ever recorded in St. Louis history and December 2015 was the wettest December on record, with 11.74 inches of rainfall.”

The statement also said that 2015 was the wettest year on record, with 61.24 inches of rainfall, which resulted in record-setting flood stages on the Meramec, Bourbeuse and Big rivers and in the Meramec River Basin. Still, the Corps of Engineers said the levees held.

Ultimately, while there may never be agreement about the proper use of the land in flood-prone areas or the use of tax subsidies for development, most agree that Mother Nature will have the final say about events that are unpredictable and can lead to sudden, catastrophic and uncontrollable events.

 

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