Former mayor John Michael laughs at the absurdity of it.
"You tell me any Home Depot classes up an area, I'm sorry, but that big, ugly orange sign. I mean ... that's just funny," Michael says, chuckling.
The proposed store site, at the southwest corner of Woods Chapel Road and I-70, is home to wetlands and two streams, tributaries of the Little Blue River's east fork. In one idyllic spot, trees surround a tiny waterfall that trickles into a pool. Squirrels and raccoons thrive there.
Yet Blue Springs is trying hard to declare the fields, streams and ponds "blighted" so it can provide $7.8 million in tax-increment financing to the Home Depot project. State and federal agencies, as well as neighbors and environmentalists, disagree. "To take natural resources and call them blight and use that as a justification and build on them and use taxpayer money to do it sounds pretty fishy to me," says Debby Hays of Citizens for Sustainable Community, a Blue Springs environmental group.
A "blight study" prepared for the city characterizes the land as "an economic and social liability and a menace to public health and welfare" The ground has steep changes in grade with "severe" shelves and ridges that cause "extremely unsafe conditions ... which can endanger the lives and welfare of the community." Trespassers have dumped trash on the site, and three horse sheds are dilapidated, the report says.
Missouri conservation department analyst Joseph Bachant disagrees with the diagnosis. "From a natural resource perspective, this site would not be considered a 'blight' ... to the community of Blue Springs, but as a resource that provides an important service to the community," Bachant writes in a recent letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will decide whether the site can be leveled and its wetlands filled with soil. "Thus it should not serve as Blue Springs' dumping ground of dredge material in order to make the steep-banked slopes of the existing streams suitable for commercial development."
The "dredge material" is several tons of dirt the city expects to have left over from the planned Adam's Dairy Lake -- a retention basin for storm water and an irrigation reservoir for the city's golf course.
In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, current Mayor Greg Grounds says it's not accurate to state "that the city is making [dirt] available as an incentive to develop the property commercially." But a Home Depot letter says developing the 45-acre Woods Chapel site had at first seemed unfeasible. "However, after meeting with the City of Blue Springs and their willingness to provide fill material on-site and financial incentives ... it began to make economical sense," says the letter to the Corps.
Members of Citizens for Sustainable Community point out that the city, which is experiencing a major budget crunch, would use tax-increment financing money to truck dirt from the Adam's Dairy Lake project to the Home Depot project. "The big corporations get rich quick, and we're left holding the bag," says Helen Nelson, an activist with the group. Hauling will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but offering the dirt free to Home Depot allows use of TIF money, so funds wouldn't have to pass through the city's lean budget. This year, officials tapped cash reserves to meet expenditures.
But Grounds now says that the city will not have to pay to have dirt hauled away from the lake site. "That's simply untrue," he says, "Many people have already come to us and requested dirt. We'll use it for various projects that people will carry it away for free, so there won't be any cost to us."
If the store isn't built, the city could skirt Corps permit requirements by dumping the dirt on the site's dryland areas rather than into its creeks and wetlands.
Grounds says Home Depot will actually do citizens a favor by developing and cleaning up the property, which he calls an "illegal dump." Home Depot's latest project design contains five settling pools to filter contaminants in runoff, and Grounds says that the plan "actually does more than leaving it the way it is."
"This land has not been in use for a number of years," says Tom Thoreson, real estate manager for Home Depot, which is promising to create replacement wetlands and clean up debris. "It is sort of overgrown and unkempt."
But both the EPA and the state conservation department have written to the Corps stating that Home Depot should seriously consider alternative sites and that the Corps should reject the store's permit request.
The Corps stalled and recently announced that it plans to hold a second public comment session in November. Grounds says the conservation department has a grudge against Blue Springs stemming from past disputes about a subdivision allegedly contaminating water in the Burr Oak Nature Center.
Grounds complained in a letter to Republican U.S. Rep. Sam Graves of "unfair retaliatory treatment by state agencies." Grounds points to the 900-acre Eastland development in Independence. "They've got a sea of asphalt over there for a Lowe's, a Wendy's, a Hilton, a McDonald's, an IHOP and who knows what else, and you're telling me our little development is an abomination?" Grounds tells the Pitch.
Ex-mayor Michael has a different opinion.
"I think it's a complete scam to try to call that area blighted," he says. "It's a way for a political entity to do something that isn't feasible under normal circumstances.... These people are wanting to go TIF just because it's too expensive to develop properly without getting aid."