It’s become a symbol for urban sprawl and a hot-button topic for Columbia’s environmentalists. It’s inspired one of the city’s most emotionally charged public debates in recent memory.
But the highly publicized Philips farm remains a remarkably private place.
Cold metal gates and crooked strings of barbed wire protect its bright-green pastures from the traffic along Gans Road. Hidden behind a row of twisted, unkempt trees at the edge of the meadow, Gans Creek meanders quietly around a narrow, stony bend on its way to Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.
Farther north, 40-acre Bristol Lake encourages a lazy afternoon of fishing and boating. Filled with lotuses and a haven for large-mouth bass that can grow to trophy size, the lake is also a favorite nesting spot for giant Canada geese. Hundreds of the waterfowl often gather here, although on this day they are noticeably absent, save for the small flock flying overhead.
That’s the Philips farm today. But soon, the 489-acre tract will become one of the largest developments in the history of Boone County. Cars and shoppers and residents will displace the cows and wildlife. Manicured lawns and ornamental trees will replace the gnarly specimens that grow there now. A mix of offices, shops, townhouses and other homes will dominate the landscape. And a city park will surround the lake, which will do double duty as a storm-water basin and recreational attraction.
After more than a year of public debate, the Columbia City Council last month approved developer Elvin Sapp’s plans for the land. In his first interview since that approval, Sapp promised Thursday that as he builds his development he will do everything he can to protect the property.
Homes and businesses will replace grazing land.
Sapp, who said he’s had his eyes on the property for “a number of years,” said he’s spent countless hours at the Philips farm and appreciates its allure. Concise and cautious with his comments, he talked about growing up on a farm and characterized himself as a nature lover who enjoys fishing, horseback riding and working outdoors. He said his knowledge of and appreciation for the Philips tract guarantees it will remain as green as possible.
“The character of the property will still be the same,” Sapp said, adding that “it’s a beautiful piece of ground. ... I think it can be developed and still have the lake and a lot of open space.”
Others disagree, of course. Dozens of Columbia residents spent hours at public meetings arguing the land should remain as it is.
Ken Midkiff of the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club said there’s no way Sapp can develop the property without compromising its aesthetics. Rolling hills, a lake for anglers and a habitat for wildlife represent the land’s “highest and best use,” he said.
Although Sapp is the first to win permission to develop the Philips farm, he is by no means the first to try. In 1979, landowner Perry Philips failed in his effort to bring a May Co. department store to the land. And in 1994, Boone County officials rejected a proposal by developers Bob Lemone and Tom Glosier for a mixed commercial and residential development. The Lemone-Glosier project met fervent public opposition, much of it from the same players who aligned against Sapp.
But the Philips farm hasn’t always been such a hot topic. For more than 40 years it was a quiet place used for farming, angling and fisheries research.
History of the farm
Perry Philips and his wife, Ella, bought the first 160 acres of the farm in 1949. They acquired the other 340 acres in pieces over the next several years, said Indiana lawyer and Philips family member John McBride.
McBride, a co-trustee of the property and husband to Philips heir Prella McBride, said it’s been years since the property was truly farmed. The owner of the cattle leases pasture rights, and the property is managed through a trust at Boone County National Bank.
The lake was created in the 1960s, McBride said, as a fishing hole for employees of Philips and Co., a wholesale electrical supply business. It has since been a private fishing spot for the exclusive Philips Lake Club, which is no longer limited to employees. The club, however, was recently disbanded pending the sale to Sapp. Most members prefer to remain private about it.
Club member Dave Denton declined to talk about the quality of fishing at Bristol Lake, for fear it would encourage trespassers. He said the group has had problems with people fishing illegally and stealing fishing boats. He did testify at a recent council hearing, however, saying that while club members adore the land, they realize it is not theirs to control.
Jim Disinger, a former Columbia resident and club member who now lives in Colorado, was eager to reminisce about the beauty of the lake. He said he and his family often spent quiet afternoons drifting across the water on a sailboat and fishing for bluegill, catfish and large-mouth bass.
“I caught lots of big bass. It was my parents’ favorite place,” he lamented.
The farm's uses
MU and the Missouri Department of Conservation for many years have used the lake for extensive fisheries research.
“It’s very shallow, weedy, and it makes fishing a challenge,” said Mike Kruse, a fisheries research biologist with the conservation department. “It has produced quality fishing for the people who use it.”
Kruse also noted that the lake is also the first in the world to use what the department calls a “slot-lake limit,” which allows anglers to take small and large bass but requires them to toss back medium-size specimens. After the technique was introduced at Bristol Lake, it caught on elsewhere, Kruse said.
“It allows the smaller fish to be thinned out and makes for more interesting fish to catch,” he said.
Kruse added that the conservation department probably will help the city manage the lake once it becomes part of a regional park. While the city hasn’t officially contracted with Sapp to acquire about 140 acres that is planned as parkland, the ordinance passed last month outlines details of the transaction.
Meanwhile, because of a challenge from the Sierra Club late last month regarding a possible violation of the city charter, the council will have another public hearing and vote next Monday on a Philips ordinance with a more specific title.
On Thursday, Sapp seemed unconcerned about the procedural snag.
“It’s a technicality that they need to clear up,” he said.