Sunset Hills board may not require rugby traffic rating

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The proposed location of the St. Louis Bomber’s rugby park.

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

The Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen might lift a traffic study rating required for the St. Louis Bombers Rugby Club to lease the former Sunset Hills Golf Course for a rugby facility, revisiting the project more than a year after approving it.

The Board of Aldermen is set to vote during a special videoconferenced meeting Tuesday, Nov. 24 on an ordinance amending the development plan for the St. Louis Bombers Rugby Club to remove a condition that a traffic study conducted by the Bombers come back with a “D” rating or higher for the intersection at West Watson and Gravois roads. But the Bombers now say that’s a condition that’s impossible to meet because the intersection was failing long before they proposed the facility.

Last year, aldermen approved a 25-year lease that gives the Bombers roughly 15 acres of the southeast portion of the property at 13366 W. Watson Road for a rugby complex. The former Sunset Hills Golf Course was donated to the city in 2018 by physician Steven Bander and is now known as Steven J. Bander Park.

Two conditions of the amended development plan aldermen approved 5-2 in September 2019 were that the Bombers place a no-right-turn sign onto West Watson Road from their facility and that the traffic study of the West Watson/Gravois intersection come back with a rating better than “D,” several steps below the highest “A” rating. However, the traffic study completed in March showed that forcing traffic to the West Watson Road/Highway 30 intersection by preventing the right turn onto West Watson would further decrease the already-dangerous intersection’s safety, and that the intersection was already “failing” even before factoring in additional traffic from the Bombers’ facility.

According to the traffic impact study conducted by traffic engineering firm CBB, the firm estimates that the proposed rugby park will generate 85 new trips during peak weekday afternoons and 250 new trips during the peak midday hour on Saturdays. With the condition that no one exit the facility by turning right onto West Watson, 90 percent of site traffic would be sent to the intersection of Gravois Road and West Watson, CBB predicted.

“A lot of people have voiced their concerns over safety. … We know that it’s still a dangerous situation as shown by the traffic study. My take is that we should do something and make it a safer situation,” said Ward 3 Alderman Nathan Lipe, a vocal supporter of the Bombers, Oct. 13. “Turning in off of Gravois right down (West) Watson and then turning out of (West) Watson right onto Gravois would make sense and would be an instant fix to the problem.”

Mayor Pat Fribis, who was an alderman when two people died at the intersection in 2015, said she and other aldermen approached the Missouri Department of Transportation to see what could be done.

“They did not want at the time to put an electrical signal there. They preferred to cut the grass and keep it cut on the median so visibility was much better,” said Fribis. “Then we as a city, the aldermen decided to put no left turns from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. so that the people that were cutting though to go to the highways coming from Jefferson County would be directed up to the highways versus just cutting through … So hopefully that saves accidents from happening and some lives being lost, but it’s still a failing intersection and I think it’s our responsibility as elected officials to address this and do something about it.”

“MoDOT’s main concern is their roadways, and so they want to keep Gravois flowing the best that they can,” Public Works Director Bryson Baker said on the state agency’s reluctance to place a traffic light at the intersection.

The city could install an electrical signal itself, but it would be costly and the city could still face pushback from MoDOT.

Ward 2 Alderman Steve Bersche suggested tongue-in-cheek that the city look into selling the rest of the 122 acres of the Bander property to fund a traffic signal at the Gravois/West Watson intersection.

“We thought this was going to be a good thing when Dr. Bander came to us and asked if we wanted this property. We all said yes. The city administrator at the time (Eric Sterman) was pretty clear about not having additional funds to maintain it, so we came up with the idea to lease it out to other entities … so we don’t have to maintain it,” said Bersche. “We’ve seen how well that’s gone. … Since we’ve inherited this, it has been nothing but headaches and bad news. Do we have any provisions in there that prevent us from putting the land up for sale?”

City Attorney Robert E. Jones said that there are no restrictions on selling the property.

The October discussion on the traffic study ended with the board directing new City Administrator Brittany Gillett, Baker and the Public Works Department to meet with MoDOT to see what more can be done with the intersection.

The Bombers sent a letter to the city ahead of the Nov. 10 meeting requesting a solution so the club can move forward.

“The traffic study was destined to fail from its inception, as it was impossible to achieve a level D at the Watson/Gravois intersection when the intersection was already at an E and F level. There was, improperly and unlawfully, never any expectation of its passing,” Lindbergh Schools and Bombers head coach Ron Laszewski wrote in the letter. “You stated it was not your intent to propose a condition that could not be met. Nonetheless, that is what occurred and we find ourselves at an impasse that demands a resolution now.”

Fribis said that the city was not aware of how poorly the intersection rated prior to imposing the condition on the Bombers.

“We had no idea what that intersection’s rating was. … I think it was expected to pass … but nobody was aware that that intersection was already … F,” said Baker.

Baker and Fribis reported from their MoDOT meeting that the agency opposes a stoplight at the intersection because of cost and fear of disrupting traffic flow. The department also said a fix would not be time efficient for the Bombers’ concerns.

Ward 4 Alderman Mark Colombo said the city has a grant that will someday widen the road.

“Shouldn’t we be happy that people are using our park facility for outdoor recreation? … If that intersection is so dangerous, we better close down those ball fields and shut down that driving range because somebody is going to get hurt. … It’s not just for the rugby players, but no one should be able to go through that intersection, period,” said Ward 4 Alderman Mark Colombo sarcastically. “Where does this nonsense end? Let people play disc golf, let some people play rugby, let the (Andre’s) Banquet Center go and of course fix that intersection over time.  … To shut everything down is just crazy.”

The board agreed 5-3 that Jones would revise the plan to get rid of the stipulation, with Colombo, Lipe, Bersche, board President Thompson Price and Ward 2 Alderman Casey Wong in favor, while Ward 3 Alderman Cathy Friedmann and Ward 1 Aldermen Ann McMunn and Joe Stewart were opposed.