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Sapp opens gate to Philips tract’s future
Project could take as long as 10 years, developer believes.

Published Saturday, June 28, 2003

As the white Ford pickup rolls over the lush terrain of the Philips farm, Elvin Sapp directs the driver, his son Shannon, which route to take around the 489-acre property in southern Columbia.

Michael McNamara photos
Elvin Sapp opens a gate on the 500-acre Philips farm, a tract southeast of Columbia that he hopes to develop. The destiny of the land, which features a 40-acre lake and is part of the sensitive watersheds of southern Boone County, has long been debated by government officials, developers and environ-mentalists.
Above, Shannon Sapp, left, and his father, Elvin Sapp, look over a map of the Philips tract while touring the property on June 20. Elvin Sapp, with help from his family, hopes to develop the land after having it annexed into the city. At right, Ben Londeree, foreground, poses a question to Sapp’s attorney, Dan Simon, left, Sapp and Ron Shy of Allstate Consultants during an open-house discussion of the Philips project on Wednesday.
At the top of a hill, Shannon comes to a farm gate that his father had warned him probably wouldn’t open. Sure enough, after looking it over for a while, Shannon retreats to the truck with a frustrated smile on his face.

"You might as well give it up. I’ve looked that gate over before," the elder Sapp jokes with his son in a lighthearted father-knows-best moment.

Since December, Elvin Sapp has acquainted himself with practically every cow herd, sapling, pond and farm gate on the expansive Philips property, and he sees it as a place where development can exist in balance with its environment.

The longtime Columbia developer also sees it as his next great 10-year challenge. "We would be awfully lucky to get through this whole project in 10 years," he said. "There’s just too much of it."

Sapp, 66, wants to develop a mix of homes and businesses on the Philips farm and bring it into the city limits through annexation. The proposal has been the subject of several city meetings and heated neighborhood debate in past weeks.

When he finished the Bluff Creek residental and office development off Old Highway 63 a couple of years ago, he promised his wife, Gerri Sapp, he wouldn’t tackle another 10-year project like that one. He admits he’s at an age where he might not be able to finish the Philips project.

But through the support of Gerri; Shannon, a homebuilder; and his daughter, Valerie Barnes, a Realtor, Elvin Sapp knows he has the support of his family to take on the challenge.

"You have to think that development is going to come out here because this is a nice piece of ground," Sapp said, looking over a pasture that could be a condominium site someday. "I mean, some developer could come out here and put houses on 10-acre tracts. I don’t think that’s a proper way to develop this entire property. I think it ought to have more thought to it than that."

Sapp knows he has his hands full trying to convince neighbors around the Philips farm that his plan protects the two environmentally-sensitive watersheds of the area and that runoff won’t contaminate the farm’s pristine 40-acre lake.

"I’m all for free enterprise and the right to develop land, but we have a responsibility to say that development could have a tremendous impact on the natural resources here," said Susan Bingaman, a Bearfield subdivision resident whose pastoral back yard is near the Philips tract.

Those who know Sapp say the developer understands those concerns, and they point to the other projects he’s done around Columbia - such as Bluff Creek, Thornbrook, Hillshire and Lake Woodrail - as models of how development can fit around its environment.

"He gives a lot of thought to the tracts of land he develops," said Ron Shy, president of engineering firm Allstate Consultants, who’s worked with Sapp since the mid-1970s and is a consultant on the Philips proposal.

Shy added that Sapp incorporated unique characteristics into Bluff Creek that he didn’t have to, such as walking trails and a parkway in the middle of Bluff Creek Boulevard. He also minimized excavation on the property. "I haven’t seen one development Elvin’s done that wasn’t successful," he said.

Elvin Sapp’s life began in the Ashland area where his father, Everett "Emery" Sapp, farmed the Wilton Bottoms and did some carpentry work with his brother Virgil.

Emery moved the family to a hill farm outside Columbia when Elvin was 7. When Elvin got older, he picked up the carpentry craft from his father and helped build houses on the weekends.

"We never really had a cross word working side-by-side," Sapp recalled. "He always let me make decisions, but if he said, ‘I think we’ll do it this way,’ well, there was no question we did it. I learned a lot from Dad, maybe more than I realized at the time."

In 1955, Sapp says, he was "ready to take on the world" because he had just graduated from Hickman High School, gotten married and started in the building trade full-time. His first opportunity at subdivision development came in the early 1960s, when he planned for the creation of the Valley View Gardens in northwest Columbia off Stadium Boulevard. At the time, the area wasn’t part of the city and needed a lagoon for sewage control.

"Back when we started that, we went to the bank and asked them if we could borrow $90,000 to do that development out there, and they told us we were crazy," he said, noting later the development ended up costing $20,000 less than the loan. It was a modest-price housing development, with lots selling at the time for $2,400 and homes around $16,700 - a fraction of their value now.

"Matter of fact, that neighborhood is real strong now, and they really battle you if you want to do something there. But that’s primarily because a lot of homeowners have lived there a long time and have paid off their homes," he said.

Valley View also carries the distinction of having the first park in the city developed on a closed lagoon site. Emery and Elvin Sapp donated that site to the city in April 1970 after the city’s main sewer trunk line was extended to the subdivision.

Emery, Elvin and Emery’s other son, Billy, established Emery Sapp & Sons Construction Co. in the late 1960s. That company is now part of the Harold E. Johnson Cos., which also includes Columbia Ready Mix, a concrete business started by the Sapp family in the mid-1970s that Billy heads now. Billy and Elvin were partners in Bluff Creek’s development.

Elvin’s son, Shannon - who also learned the construction trade working with his father - operates Horizon Builders Inc., which builds homes in Elvin’s developments and others around Columbia. Daughter Valerie Barnes sells homes, and wife Gerri does some design work for the developments.

More recent Sapp developments such as Bluff Creek and Thornbrook have targeted the upper end of the homebuying market with homes priced at $175,000-$400,000 and up.

Dan Darnell, city building regulations supervisor, believes a trend toward higher-end homes has evolved with Columbia’s growing affluence. "If you went to a subdivision in the late ’70s or ’80s, you might have seen a nice house or two," Darnell said. "Now, you’re seeing block after block of these subdivisions, and that shows developers are changing in business with the changing times."

Both Darnell and Annie Pope, president of the Home Builders Association of Columbia, say the Sapps have excelled in building houses that incorporate features of the environment. That experience, coupled with the fact that the Sapps annually are the among the association’s Regency Award winners for building excellence, makes Pope believe in their ability to develop the Philips farm.

"That tract would be more sensitively developed by Elvin Sapp than any other developer, and I mean that sincerely," Pope said. "Elvin cares about his building legacy here, he cares about the community, and he has a track record for looking at developments as a whole."

Many neighbors upset about the Philips property plans know Sapp’s reputation, but they also worry that development - no matter how well-planned - could cause irreversible damage to a delicate watershed in the area.

Sapp and his development team - made up of Shy and engineer Brian Harrington, attorney Dan Simon and spokesman Mark Farnen - know those neighborhood concerns will likely never go away. A case in point came up Wednesday, when neighbors grilled the team during a project open house at the Roger B. Wilson Boone County Government Center.

Many of the questions and comments focused on science. Neighbors want to know that parking-lot runoff will not lead to groundwater contamination and creek erosion.

"I understand this is a much better plan than what’s been proposed before," said Tony Davis, an owner and manager of a day camp in the area. "There exists a potential, however, that if we do see damage to this watershed over time, there won’t be any reversal. And what’s going to happen to this area if this development doesn’t work out in 12 years?"

Elvin Sapp has faith that the grass strips and swales he plans to place around the 40-acre lake and other parts of the property will actually improve the environment in the area.

"I know we can control runoff and do what they want us to do," he said. "That’s my personal opinion and also the opinion of the professional people we’ve hired. I feel sure there will be a better quality of water out here after we get through than what’s out here today.

"I know that might be hard to understand, but this is agricultural land with cows running over the ground, and it has erosion. Once it gets developed, we’ll be able to control runoffs better."

Both the neighbors and the Sapps say development is inevitable on the Philips farm. A bold attempt at developing it came in 1994 from Bob LeMone and Tony Glosier. Neighborhood opposition to that commercial and residential plan was heated, and the plan failed to win approval from the county.

"If they want to stop growth and population in Columbia, that’s fine, just tell us and we’ll try to work for it," Elvin Sapp said. "But if we’re going to have" growth, "this is an ideal spot for it."

Bingaman, the Bearfield resident, just hopes the development doesn’t become like other areas of Columbia where commercial use came and withered over a period of years. She describes expanding development "as a cancerous tumor" that’s eating away at the vital outside edge surrounding Columbia. "Who’s to say in five to 10 years you won’t have some empty buildings just like at Rock Bridge" Shopping Center? she questions.

Elvin Sapp believes the hats developers wear have changed. When he started building homes in the 1950s, residents put a white hat on developers because there was a lack of housing. Today, he said, opposition has almost made builders the bad guys in black hats.

"Some of it I understand; I don’t think every piece of Columbia needs to be developed. I really don’t," he said. "We do need some open spaces. Any good development is going to have open space to it. It all depends on what you can afford to do on that property."

Truth be told, Sapp would like to be spending time more time with his family and its passion for show horses. He calls horseback riding his therapy.

He’s also getting his kids more involved in the decision-making of the development business. "I try to turn more over to them all the time, and the reason I like them to be around on the size of project like" Philips "is that they need to know where I’m at on it from beginning to end."

The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission’s review of the plan, as well as any city council discussion, are a couple months away, and Elvin Sapp isn’t confident the plan will catch favor with decision makers.

"We’re trying to do the things the city would like us to do, but I don’t think we’ll know until they make their vote," he said. "I’ve been working on this for a while, and we have a lot of professional people working on it. We think we have a good program for this property put together."

Reach Steve Friedman at (573) 815-1713 or





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