Swansea trustees are expected to make a decision in early September on the annexation and redistricting of 49 acres of farmland to accommodate a controversial plan for a new type of housing development.
274 homes will be rented rather than owned, according to a national trend of “build-to-let” subdivisions touted as an alternative to condominiums for people who can’t buy or don’t want to buy.
White Oak Commons will be on the north side of Thouvenot Lane, which connects with Frank Scott Parkway, between Old Collinsville Road and Hartman Lane.
“For the village, it’s a different housing option,” said Joe Elif, director of construction and zoning. “It is another option (we can) offer to people who want to live in Swansea. It is not just that you live in an apartment or buy a house.”
Several area residents voiced opposition to the development at a planning and zoning board meeting on July 12, citing potential problems with traffic, property values, rainwater runoff, subdivision maintenance, first responders and school overcrowding.
The discussion resulted in a tied vote by the Planning and Zoning Board on whether a change of annexation and division should be recommended to the Swansea Board of Trustees, with three voting yes, three voting no, and one absent.
Among the opponents is 49-year-old Swansea resident Brian Thuffnott, whose mother lives on a century-old family farm next to the proposed development. His grandparents owned some of the 49 acres until the 1970s.
Brian Thofnott likened White Oak Commons to a gigantic, high-density mobile park that would create traffic, safety and quality of life problems and strain the village’s resources.
“All the houses will be 10 feet apart,” said Thofinoth. “Can you imagine how many cars that would be?”
Village manager Ben Schlosser said the current landowner, Hospital Sisters Health System, has indicated that he plans to sell the property to make way for housing development, whether it is annexed by Swansea or another surrounding municipality.
“There is value to having a say in the process,” Schlosser said.
School district weighs in
Dawn Elser, Superintendent of Central School District 104, sent a letter to Swansea Mayor Mike Leopold and village trustees on August 22, asking why no one had consulted school officials about the development plan.
District Central Elementary School and Arthur Middle School in O’Fallon serve parts of Fairview Heights, Shiloh, Belleville and Swansea, including the area where White Oak Commons will be located.
“I was shocked (by news of the plan),” Elser said.
Elser expressed concern about the instability of such a massive rental development with “families coming and going” and its impact on the area’s schools, which now serve about 600 students in preschool through eighth grade.
Elser noted that complexes with one- and two-bedroom apartments are generally occupied by single people and childless or single-child couples, so their impact on schools is less than sub-divisions of houses with up to four bedrooms, which are planned Its in White Oak Commons.
“Central 104 really prides itself on keeping class sizes small, and we’ve been able to do that with consistent enrollment,” Elser said. “The potential large influx of students could lead to our overcrowding.”
Elser said she generally believes “development is good” but fears White Oak Commons could be bad for the school district, and she needs more information to solidify her opinion.
The land along Thouvenot Lane is also part of O’Fallon Township High School District 203.
The land was a gift to the hospital
Clair County’s 49 unincorporated acres are owned by the Hospital Sisters Health System, which operates St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon.
Dr. Enrique “Henry” Rodriguez and his wife, Priscilla Rodriguez, donated the land to HSHS St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Foundation in December 2018, according to spokesperson Kelly Barbeau.
The property is for sale for $1.96 million on the Balke Brown Transwestern website. That’s about $40,000 an acre.
The Next Chapter Neighborhood, a Georgia-based company that wants to buy the land and build White Oak Commons, is asking the village of Swansea to annex and repartition from an agricultural area to a planned commercial area, allowing both commercial and residential uses.
“The market is crying out loud for this type of product,” said Andrew Malzer, Vice President of Development at Next Chapter.
Malzer said high mortgage rates and property prices prevent some people from buying homes, while others choose to live the comfortable and “hassle-free” tenant lifestyle.
“If they’re going to rent, they’d rather rent their own home than live in a stacked apartment complex with communal walls,” Malzer said.
Malzer said White Oak Commons will be different from many built-to-rent housing developments in the United States, because all of its streets, sidewalks, plazas and public spaces will be owned and maintained by one company, Next Chapter.
“The way they described us at the[Planning and Zoning Board]meeting is that it’s kind of like a horizontal condominium,” said Elif, building and zoning manager.
Iliff prepared a report for the Swansea Board of Trustees after the meeting and stated that the development could help meet strong demand for local housing. The village would be responsible for policing and fire protection, but not street or sidewalk maintenance.
Developer gives details
Next Chapter Neighborhoods built two similar subdivisions, one in Georgia and one in South Carolina, which the company later sold, according to Malzer. It now develops a third of it in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The plans are still in the conceptual stage, but Malzer expects White Oak Commons to include:
- Approximately 48 one-bedroom homes, 135 two-bedroom homes, 75 three-bedroom homes and 16 four-bedroom homes, each with a garage and back porch.
- Amenities such as a swimming pool, fitness center, walking paths, barbecue area, playground, dog park and possibly a pickle ball court, as well as rainwater retention ponds.
- Diversity atmosphere with all ages and backgrounds, no separation with mostly young or old.
Rents range from $1,200 to $1,400 for a one-bedroom, $1,400 to $1,600 for a two-bedroom, $1,600 to $1,900 for a three-bedroom and $1,900 for a four-bedroom.
- Preserved natural wetlands and a large creek running through the middle of the property.
Malzer called the founders of the next chapter “visionaries” who developed the first rental-built subdivision before other businesses joined the bandwagon and before the current housing crisis.
“This built-up space for rent is the fastest growing niche in the real estate market today,” he said.
Resident Questions Process
Brian Thofinoth’s grandparents, Joseph and Irma Thofinoth, settled in Saint Clair County in the late 19th century. The log cabins predate the white farmhouse where his mother Jean Thouvenot lives.
Today, the area is filled with subdivisions, apartment complexes, and businesses, which increases traffic on Thouvenot Lane, which St. Clair County is expanding into.
Brian Thouvenot said area residents know HSHS land will be developed, but feel village officials have rushed the process to White Oak Commons and failed to study the potential implications of this relatively new type of rental development.
“When you put it as one piece of property, you don’t have to stick to the typical setbacks and spacing you might have in a traditional neighborhood,” he said. How they can get the density they need is by 10 feet apart. They are literally on top of each other.”
Neighborhoods in the next chapter applied for annexation and reinstatement of districts on June 16, according to Elif. The Planning and Subdivision Board considered it on July 12, resulting in a tie vote.
The Swansea Community and Economic Development Board of Trustees submitted the proposal on August 1 before voting 3 to 3 on August 15. Mayor Leopold broke the tie in his favour.
A vote on changing annexation and zoning is on the agenda for the next Board of Trustees meeting on September 6.
Thovenot said officials violated village rules by allowing the Planning and Zoning Board to send the proposal to the Board of Trustees without waiting the 90 days required in the event of a tie and allowing the mayor to break the tie in the committee.
“We just want the process to be fair and well thought out,” Thofinott said.
Mayor Leopold could not be reached for comment for this story. Principal Schlosser said officials have followed the “standard process” of reviewing a proposal to annex and return the area, as outlined in the village ordinances, with White Oak Commons.
“There were legally mandated public hearings, and the public had every opportunity to provide input,” he said.
This story was originally published August 30, 2022 6:00 am.
Terry Maddox has been a reporter for 37 years, joining Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College in Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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August 30, 2022 at 09:19AM