Sunday, February 15, 1998

Entangled in expansion

Published in the Columbia Missourian

On the wall above the kitchen counter in Jim and Helen Judah's house is a 30-year-old aerial photograph of their property. Open fields and clustered treetops dominate the scene. Taken today, the photograph would look very different.

At the northwest edge of their property, middle-class houses in the Georgetown subdivision spring up from the fields. Nearer the Judahs' house, across Gillespie Bridge Road, residents of the Longview subdivision mow lawns in front of their duplexes. And although a proposal to rezone the land just downhill from the Judahs' lagoon was rejected a couple of years ago, the possibility remains for subdivisions to creep closer.

Southwest and northeast of Columbia, land like the Judahs' is under pressure from the expanding city. As the city's population grows, homes and land to build them on are in high demand.

Many northeastern landowners seem ready to sell their properties. But in the southwest, few landowners say they are interested in selling despite the money they could make.

Meanwhile, shops and houses are going up all along the perimeter of the Columbia, wherever land can be bought and developed. Growth to the southwest of the city has been curtailed, however, because holdouts in that area own more than 3,000 acres of development-ready land.

But even in the southwest, residents' lives are changing because of Columbia's growth. Civilization is banging on the door. Roads bring more traffic; zoning and subsequent building alter the views from people's homes.

To sell or not to sell
Jim Judah says he knows all about selling land. The family farm on which he was born was sold and became tract housing. Three years ago, he and his wife, Helen, sold a 320-acre parcel on Coats Lane. The new owner isn't a developer, and the Judahs rent the land from the new owner to produce hay. Jim says this is the only way they can support 110 cattle on the 175 acres they have left.

What of that last 175 acres?

"We're not going to sell," he says.

The Judahs are holding on, even without much help. One of their two part-time farmhands is unable to walk, but drives a tractor. The other helps in the afternoons. Jim does the morning and evening feeding alone.

Land prices and the production costs make farming for a living difficult - even for longtime family farmers such as the Judahs.

Surrounded by growing developments and "hobby farmers," Jim and Helen live on their investments. "It has cut farming clear out," Jim says.

Over on South Coats Lane, John Sam Williamson says he too worries about the development happening nearby. He says he is watching valuable soybean fields turn into grassy lawns for subdivisions.

"This land is all zoned agricultural," Williamson says. "As we have urbanization of the area, because of the growth of Columbia and outside areas, this land has changed from agricultural to residential."

State, city and county governments are also developing land. Near Williamson's house, the land is river bottom and flood plain and is unsuitable for residential development. The city of Columbia has 10 wells and three sewage treatment sites, with a fourth in the works. The Missouri Department of Conservation owns the nearby Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.

Williamson says he has had several offers to buy his land, but he has turned them down. "At some point I probably will, because it would be stupid not to. I'm under pressure, but I'm not letting it bother me."

Williamson, who is president of the McBaine Levee district board, owns 1,400 acres of Missouri River flood plain. He says he maintains the fences at the edge of his land because neighboring developers didn't want to build them.

Florea, who owns 430 acres on Coats Lane, says he has had no purchase offers, but he is wary about the idea of selling: "Anywhere within 20 or 30 miles of Columbia, you want to be careful offering your land for a price, because someone might take you up on it."

His son and daughter-in-law also live on Florea's land. He says he doesn't plan to sell.

These landowners recognize that they are still part of the community. They can't just hold onto their land, blind to issues of expansion. Their own quality of life, land use patterns and financial security are in question. Like everyone else, when they talk about the future, they talk about zoning, roads and sewage management. These, they say, need to be addressed no matter what.

Florea, for example, is always present at county meetings. He and other farmers go to make their opinions heard and to keep the county mindful of obligations to its citizens.

Two sides of the coin
County land wasn't always governed by zoning ordinances. Now, however, land is zoned several different ways, says Stan Shawver, director of county planning and building inspection.

That is both good and bad, farmers say. The Boone County Planning and Zoning Commission is helping control expansion by preventing landowners from doing whatever they want. The Judahs, for example, now have to get a permit if they want to build even a shed on their land. Folks no longer can "just go out and put a trailer up," Jim Judah says.

The city's southern expansion over the past 30 years has also brought mixed results, Williamson says. Besides more crime and traffic, there is a lag between support and growth: "The infrastructure has not kept up with the development in this area," he says. Old roads carrying new traffic, for example, are a problem.

Florea says the city should improve its road maintenance. He says that during the 1993 flood, a bridge on Coats Lane was under eight feet of water. Ten families had to use rowboats to cross between their homes and their cars parked on the other side of the bridge.

The county is finishing a five-year program to upgrade roads. The half-percent sales tax extended in November will sustain the project for an additional 10 years. But residents say it is hard to know where the next improvements will be made.

When Jim Judah moved to his land in 1944, four miles of gravel road led from there to the Columbia town line. Now, cars back up on the blacktop in front of his home every day during rush hour. "I don't even go to the mailbox without having to wait for the traffic," Helen says. On the other hand, Jim says, the paved road is more driver-friendly.

Florea says the county could influence where development occurs with its road-paving plans. While the county can't force developers into particular areas, a blacktopped road is certainly more attractive for development than a gravel one.

"The concentration of higher-cost housing is along improved roads," Shawver says. But the impact of the five-year road-paving project has yet to increase development rates significantly, he says. "At this point we haven't seen a lot of that. Development takes a long time."

Jim Judah says he is used to managing the waste from both his household and his farm animals. Now, however, the city's waste also is being treated near his home.

City sewer standards are strict, and new subdivisions are required to comply. But because the city requires annexation before extending privileges to residents, most current owners have either a septic tank or a sewage lagoon. However, Boone County's primary soil contains a lot of clay, and this prevents septic tanks from percolating properly, Williamson says.

Lagoons smell bad, and neighbors can see the waste. Some houses use combination systems, such as septic tanks piping effluent to secondary treatment plants.

The city sewer plant near the Judahs' place is built on land the Judahs used to own. The city used its power of condemnation to buy the land, Helen says.

The fourth sewage-treatment wetland to be created will use part of a 100-acre parcel that Florea sold the city last year. He is concerned about the possibility of odor.

Florea says he doesn't notice any odors from the existing wetlands, but his house is a quarter-mile upwind of those areas. The new treatment wetland might be closer to his home.

The city's impact has not been entirely negative, residents say. After the 1993 floods, the city helped river-bottom landowners organize levee maintenance. And Florea says he appreciated the city's helping residents form a levee district: "They've been a prime mover on that since the word go."

The future
"The city's really changing," Williamson says. "It hurts me to see the change, because this is my heritage. This has been agricultural land for generations. People are selling it. But you can't blame them for doing it."

He is quick to add that these kinds of changes are happening not just in Boone County, but all around the country.

"There's no more agricultural land being made. It's all that we're ever going to have," he says.
Even Earth City, a St. Louis suburb, used to be an agricultural area of river-bottom farmland, he says. Now it has hotels, factories and warehouses.

As the world's population increases, the demand for food grows. The United States is the most efficient producer of agricultural products, Williamson says, adding that other countries don't have the same combination of infrastructure, know-how and technology.

"I'm not going to be like Don Quixote, out fighting windmills," Williamson says. "There's just one thing after another, and it's not going to end - it's going to be more."

At a recent meeting about the county budget, Florea was the only resident in attendance. "I've tried to be very active in influencing (the commission) - not with a very high degree of success," he says. "I keep nipping at their heels."

Florea says his main concern is that the county is spending too much money on construction of roads and too little on their maintenance. But bad government, he says, is the fault of citizens who don't participate. The opportunity is there, he says, even for a farmer who still loves his independence: "What do you lose by trying?"