Bikers gathered at the MKT trailhead in Flat Branch Park early Monday afternoon to "pedal to petition" against the University of Missouri System's sale of property near Katy Trail State Park in St. Charles County back in the summer.

Five people gathered to talk, protest and bike the MKT Trail before later delivering a Sierra Club petition, signed by over 500 people, to UM System President Mun Choi.

According to a statement from the Sierra Club, the system made a deal to sell the land to private developer NT Homebuilders, which plans to build a subdivision there. NT Homebuilders is owned by Greg Whittaker, the developer of New Town, a prominent St. Charles suburban community.

The planned subdivision includes single-family homes and multifamily units, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Andy Heaslet, from the Missouri Sierra Club, was among the Columbia protesters and expressed frustration at the lack of public input on the deal.

"This is public land, and the public hasn't been engaged in the process," Heaslet said.

Among the protesters was George P. Smith, MU's Nobel Laureate. Smith is an avid biker, even having a bike rack on campus dedicated to him following the award. He said he understood the tough decision the university had to make but insisted the land was too important to give away for money.

"We'll have to make sacrifices at the university," Smith said. "But to me, we should make those sacrifices in order to preserve something that is a long-term legacy, worth way more than a few million dollars."

Heaslet, who called the Katy Trail a "statewide treasure," said he thinks people all around Missouri can rally around their case.

"While this campaign may seem very local to this area, the Katy Trail connects all of us across the state," Heaslet said. 

The tract, which was university-owned, sits adjacent to Katy Trail, the Weldon Spring Conservation Area and a St. Charles County regional greenway. It was gifted to the university for one dollar after it was claimed by the federal government to help with the World War II effort. It's commonly known around the region as the "Missouri Bluffs" area, near a golf course of the same name.

Although the response against the deal in Columbia is a recent development, the deal has been the cause of controversy in St. Charles County for months.

Last March, the St. Charles County Planning and Zoning Commission voted against the deal 8 to 1, recommending the St. Charles County City Council reject the deal with the developer. The council, after several months of delaying votes and allowing the developer to revise the details of the plan, approved an altered, updated deal in July that decreased the planned number of homes in the subdivision, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Not long after, a Weldon Spring resident and Weldon Woods Inc., a nonprofit, filed a suit against the council, seeking to reverse its decision. However, the suit was voluntarily withdrawn by Weldon Woods on Feb. 18, according to officials at the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.

With the withdrawal of the lawsuit, the university is continuing to work with the developer and St. Charles County, according to UM spokesman Christian Basi.

UM System President Mun Choi also met with the group of protesters, telling them the university was still in negotiations and would try to find a compromise that all could appreciate, according to Heaslet. He said Choi did not go into detail about those negotiations.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

  • Galen Bacharier is a reporter and assistant city editor at the Missourian. He has previously reported on state government and higher education. Reach him at galenbacharier@gmail.com or on Twitter @galenbacharier.

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