ST. CHARLES COUNTY — Residential development of the Missouri Bluffs, the target of environmental protests for several years, is underway following the recent sale by the University of Missouri of nearly 48 acres for $1.3 million.


The sale cleared the way for construction to begin on the first phase of NT Home Builders' plan for up to 221 residences on the edge of the Missouri Bluffs Golf Club near Highway 40.


First announced in late 2017, the subdivision received final approval from the St. Charles County Council on Sept. 30 after more than a year of opposition from environmentalists, local residents and trail enthusiasts.


The university and NT Home Builders LLC closed on the sale of 47.7 acres on Dec. 13, according to university records released to the Post-Dispatch in response to a Sunshine Law request. The acres comprise an area just south of Missouri Research Park Drive, west of the Missouri Bluffs Golf Course and east of the Busch Greenway Trail Head.


NT Home Builders, headed by developer Greg Whittaker, last month began selling undeveloped lots for 32 homes on that stretch of land for a starting price of $149,500.


The remaining residences of the subdivision will be built in two phases. NT Home Builders and the University of Missouri are finalizing a sale of about 87 acres for the remainder of the project, said Christian Basi, a spokesman for the university.


The scope of the planned subdivision has changed over time in the face of opposition from environmentalists. NT Home Builders reduced the number of planned dwellings from more than 400 residences, set aside a little more than 47 acres for a publicly managed park, and added conservation requirements that include a ban on pesticides.


The plan also has received a number of exceptions to county ordinances, including narrower roads and development on steeper slopes than usually allowed.


All of those factors, in addition to a lack of sewer and electrical infrastructure, could have played into the sales agreement because it makes development costs higher, said Dee Bax, owner of Dutchman Realty in St. Peters.


"Not that any of this is a negative for a buyer, it's just that it does play into the price of what you can sell the lands for," she said. "I can tell you that it was a difficult piece to develop from a cost standpoint. I know Whittaker is going to make a big success of it and I know people are interested in the project."


John Hickey, with the Missouri Sierra Club, said construction of the subdivision will disturb the landscape and detract from the experience of the nearby Katy Trail. His group will oppose any new developments in the area, he said.


"It's the wrong development in the wrong place," he said. "We just have to make sure St. Charles County doesn't make this mistake again."


The university owned the bluff property as part of the Missouri Research Park that developed along Highway 40 over the last 30 years.


It acquired 8,000 acres for $1 as federal surplus property in 1948 from the U.S. government, which had taken parts of the property from residents during World War II for ordnance production and uranium processing. After fulfilling the stipulation that the land be used only for research for 20 years, the university gained the right to sell it.


In October, St. Charles County paid $2 million to buy from the university 286 acres of adjacent Missouri Bluffs property for preservation, including about 200 acres currently rented to the Missouri Bluffs Golf Course.


The golf course is governed by a 73-year lease that prevents construction; under the terms of the lease, the county receives $100,000 each year. That money goes into the county parks fund.


NT Home Builders is the company behind New Town St. Charles — a development known for its "new urbanist" design.