The recent bout of torrential rains and flooding in the area underscores the function that St. Francois County’s Floodplain Manager, Bob Turner, serves.
Before the heavy rain, Turner spoke about his role as county floodplain manager and some of the issues he faces.
“One of the difficulties I have is, there is no planning and zoning,” he said. “As a result, there are no building requirements. If somebody buys a piece of land and begins building, I’m not aware of it until somebody tells me. That’s what I’m trying to tell people, that we do have a building permit process. What that does is alert us that you’re doing something.
“What I’ve done is travelled around to see if somebody’s doing something. A couple of cases, I’ve talked to property owners and advised them they’re in a flood area. I had somebody with a trailer house at the junction of two streams. Every indication I had was during a major storm, there might be three foot of water around that trailer. My concern was for them to make sure that thing is anchored so it doesn’t float away. I had a case recently where somebody was building a new house. It was at the confluence of two drainage areas and it was right in the middle of it. Even though it was not in a floodplain area, I was worried they might get water in their house at some time. I knocked on their door and talked to them. They had just moved here and were not aware of it.”
Turner said some streams in the area — one of them being Wolf Creek — tend to rise high and fast.
“You have to be careful around Wolf Creek,” he said. “One area [of the floodplain] is a mile wide. The other thing is, people say they’ve lived here 30 years and never seen water this high, [that can change].”
According to Turner, floodplains are not the only issue in the county that can inflict water damage. “Eighty percent of FEMA claims are for properties that are not in a floodplain. It’s a matter of overland flow. You’re lower than the land up there and it goes through your property and around your house.”
Adding fill to a floodplain without professional advice can create problems for the areas Turner deals with.
“There are people who have done things in the past that they would not be permitted to do today, which is to go ahead and fill,” he said. “Around Doe Run, that has occurred. The downside of that is, you are taking away storage volume, so you may cause increased water in other areas. Whatever you do in a floodplain may affect others.”
The lack of planning and zoning has come up before as a subject of public discussion. In 2019, officials spoke about the downsides of no planning and zoning. During a meeting of the St. Francois County Commission, County Clerk Kevin Engler brought up the issue of building permit costs and enforcement. He recommended raising the cost of a building permit.
Engler explained at the time, the building permit fee was well below the cost of issuance and only six building permits were issued in St. Francois County for 2018.
“The cost of issuance is around $20, and I’m going to recommend we make that the fee,” he said. “The true reason we do this is not to make the assessor aware when building projects are occurring, the more important thing will be on the back end, if they don’t get the fee. Six buildings last year were not all that happened [in the county].”
County building permits are obtained at the county clerk’s office. When a building permit is issued, the county clerk then notifies the county assessor and the county health department.
At the time, St. Francois County Assessor Dan Ward explained that municipalities in the county enforce their own building permits and generally keep his office updated. The problem the county faces is when building permits are not enforced in rural parts of the county.
“There’s always been a permit system in the county,” he said then. “It was encouraged that anybody building a new home, we were looking at all structures, but we definitely want to know when a new home is being built in the county. We asked that they pick up a building permit [at the county clerk’s office] and post it on their property. Then our field personnel would know there was a new structure going to be built. We would periodically go by and see if construction had begun.”
Ward noted that without a permit, the assessor’s office will have no knowledge of new construction projects and has to use alternate measures in finding out what is being built in the county.
“I brought it up several times about the new flyover maps coming out,” he said. “We had problems. Sometimes we might not find a [new] house for two years, because it would be so far back in the woods. When we passed the law for occupancy a couple of years back, then we started contacting utility companies to see if they would notify us. Some of them were fine with it, but we are on the back burner.”
Ward had then observed that when his office is unaware of new construction and they finally find out about it a year or two later, it creates a cascade of tax collection and funding distribution problems for the county.
“It’s always had an effect, because you’re late at picking up that tax dollar,” he said. “The school districts would like to have their money. Seventy percent [of real estate taxes] go to the schools.
“My job is to locate, list and give a value to all real estate and personal property in my jurisdiction, which is our county. If we find it late, we still get our tax dollars but we’re not getting as soon as we should have. If they’ve finished it in June of last year, and we didn’t find it until January of this year, we probably are going to put it on January of this year, because we don’t know when it was totally completed. Then we’re going back and taxing somebody the whole year back and then they have got to pay a tax that they didn’t know that had to pay because they didn’t have a bill.”
When a property owner is faced with over a year’s worth of assessments due to not obtaining a permit, Ward stressed that the expense is greater due to late penalties incurred and the potential of reducing an assessment through the appeals process is lost due to state mandated time limits.
“They missed the appeal process also as part of the law that we have to follow,” he said. “Everyone has the ability to appeal their values if they don’t agree with them. If we hit them with a tax bill that they don’t know is coming, because they are unaware of it, and don’t know how the law works, I don’t think that’s fair to the taxpayer.”
Ward explained that enforcement of permit penalties may require legislation at the state level.
Also in 2019, Rose Mier, environmental public health specialist with the St. Francois County Health Department, explained the conditions involved with septic systems if a home is built without the health department’s knowledge.
“If you are building on three acres or more, you are exempt from getting a permit from us,” she said at the time. “If it is less than 3 acres, you have to come to us to get a permit.
“If there is something that gets built without our knowledge, if we find out within a year, we write them a notice of violation. That notice gives them a timeline of remediation. They have to get their soils tested by a registered soils scientist, they will submit to us an as-built plan. If that plan meets what would be required, they have to pay the $90 permit fee to the state, and then we write them a permit. If it doesn’t meet what they should have put in, they have to put in the correct system. If they don’t comply, then we can refer it to the prosecuting attorney.”
To give an example of a loss of funding for the county, then - Associate County Commissioner Patrick Mullins gave an example of how county funding from other sources can be impacted by not having updated information on improvements throughout the county.
“The [Southeast Missouri] Regional Planning Commission had information from previous records through St. Francois County and those records were not up to date,” he said. “That cost the county [part] of an $8,000 USDA grant. This relates to the building permits, because we need up to date information, it is imperative.”
Mark Marberry is a reporter for the Farmington Press and Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3629, or at email@example.com