Sugar Creek Valley in Kirkwood has been called a wildflower haven, painters’ paradise and architects’ alley. The verdant drive that descends on West Adams Avenue, past Ballas Road, is dotted with homes of distinguished architecture on large wooded lots.
Many admirers would love to reside there, and if area developers had their way, many more homes would find a place on the lovely sloping hillsides. Homeowners who now reside in Sugar Creek naturally are protective – and wary of residential encroachment.
A proposal to rezone a 1.98 acre lot on 1837 Bach Ave. to allow more homes has neighbors getting organized. They have formed “Save Sugar Creek” and already have shown up in numbers at a planning and zoning subcommittee meeting in Kirkwood.
By Don Corrigan (Webster-Kirkwood Times)
“There’s a lot to save here,” said Ace Marchionne, who lives next door to the Bach Avenue property. “We fear a change in zoning will literally open the floodgates, and will have a significant impact on Sugar Creek’s beauty, its historic value and natural resources.”
Neighbors say Sugar Creek already suffers from increased flooding. Resulting sewer back-ups and high water is getting into homes. Erosion and debris from construction will only make flooding matters worse and neighbors warn that taxpayers will be on the hook to remedy the problems.
“I know the city has tried to wash its hands of any flooding issues, saying those are all MSD’s problems,” said Marchionne. “But it’s a big issue for the city if they create more impervious surfaces with building approvals that cause tremendous water runoff.”
Marchionne and others warn that a precedent could be set for rezoning all R-1 properties into multiple lots for building homes. Sugar Creek will never be the same if property owners eye dollars and begin rezoning their lots so that developers can build home after home, according to Marchionne.
Kirkwood officials acknowledge the residents’ concerns, but contend that one rezoning approval by the city will not have a domino effect.
“Each rezoning request is actually considered separately and based upon the site-specific facts that surround that particular request,” said Russell Hawes, Chief Administrative Officer for Kirkwood.
“If one request to zone from R-1 to a denser designation is granted, that does not mean that every R-1 property is appropriate to zone to a denser designation,” Hawes said.
Hawes noted that Adams in the direction of Sugar Creek is shut down from flooding less than once a year. He added that the city has not had to remove any debris from the road from torrential rains, but he said those issues were really the purview of St. Louis County, which owns and maintains the thoroughfare.
A number of Sugar Creek residents have been surprised to learn in recent years that their homes have been put in an expanding flood plain, and that causes home insurance pain. Also, the creek itself has been designated as an impaired waterway by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Gwyn Wahlmann, longtime resident of Sugar Creek, said flooding has worsened in the past two decades. Floods have left debris piles causing channel blockage, erosion, channel widening, creek bank losses and risk to property owners. She said owners feel better creek management is urgently needed.
“Ever since a woods was clear cut and a large home built behind me 17 years ago, a neighbor and I have been experiencing damaging runoff,” said Wahlmann. “The city and MSD visited and acknowledged there are runoff problems and promised new regulations were forthcoming. That was four years ago and nothing has happened.
“I don’t ever want to see Sugar Creek culverted, channeled and turned into a concrete drainage ditch,” added Wahlmann. “But if there is no control of increased impervious surfacing, I’m convinced that is the creek’s future.”
Wahlmann has considered taking matters into her own hands. She has reached out to Deer Creek Watershed Alliance for advice on how to form a Sugar Creek Watershed Alliance.
The Deer Creek group organizes citizen cleanups of that watershed. The group also consults with MSD and the cities along Deer Creek and works to preserve, protect and restore the Deer Creek waterway through Ladue, Rock Hill, Webster Groves and other area towns.
Save Sugar Creek
Michael Carmody, one of the forces behind Save Sugar Creek, said he saw a need for the group after the extended battle over the expansion of the retirement center of Aberdeen Heights. He said both issues show that the city needs more knowledge of its watershed and what runoff from development is doing to existing residents.
“There have to be limits on altering floodplains, stream channels, natural water flow,” said Carmody. “Once you go west of Geyer Road, you start to run into watershed issues. The city must update information on this before it makes these development decisions.”
According to Hawes, the city is aware of the concerns over increased storm water runoff due to in-fill residential construction in recent years.
“The city has made this concern a priority in its 2017 Strategic Plan and the new comprehensive plan known as Envision 2035,” said Hawes. “This past year, the city worked with a consultant to develop storm water regulations to address these concerns.
“City staff will present these new regulations to the council in May for its review. MSD regulations do not regulate individual residential lot construction,” he added. “This is the primary reason the city has undertaken the effort to develop in-fill housing storm water regulations.”
Rick Blanner said he is encouraged that Save Sugar Creek does now have the attention of Kirkwood officials.
“We have more than 400 citizens who have joined us to sign our petition to oppose irresponsible rezoning and development,” said Blanner. “My own primary concern is the flash flooding. I am concerned that I wasn’t living in a flood plain before, and now I am.
“This new plan for rezoning and building will make things worse,” said Blanner. “The original home on my property is from 1900. I really don’t want to see history washed away.”