Sunset Hills rugby field approved despite the concerns of neighbors

Pictured above: The proposed location of the St. Louis Bomber’s rugby park. Rendering courtesy of the St. Louis Bombers.

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

The Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen approved an amended development plan for the St. Louis Bombers Rugby Football Club last week to build a rugby complex on the southeast corner of the former Sunset Lakes Golf Course, marking the end of a tumultuous six months between the city and residents opposed to the new rugby fields.

The aldermen approved the plan, with conditions, 5-2 at a four hour Sept. 10 Board of Aldermen meeting that was dominated by a strained three hours of public comments about the rugby plan, with most speakers against.

Ward 3 Aldermen Kurt Krueger and Nathan Lipe, Ward 4 Aldermen Thompson Price and Mark Colombo and Ward 2 Alderman Steve Bersche voted in favor of the proposal, while Ward 1 Aldermen Dee Baebler and Ann McMunn, whose ward the complex will be in, voted against the proposal. Ward 2 Alderman Casey Wong was absent.

The approval of the development plan concludes a nearly yearlong process since the Bombers first approached the city last fall about a proposed rugby park at the donated Sunset Hills Golf Course, 13366 W. Watson Road, now known as Steven J. Bander Park.

The conditions to the amended development plan, offered by Colombo, permit alcohol sales until two hours after the last game or 10 p.m., whichever comes first. Other conditions include a no-right-turn sign onto West Watson Road from the rugby complex/Andre’s Banquet Center parking lot, no PA system, no parking on West Watson and any field lighting used must be shut off by 10 p.m.

Mark Colombo

The 122 acres was donated to the city in September 2018 by Steven Bander, a physician from Des Peres. The last day the golf course was open was Nov. 15, and the city closed on the property Nov. 29.

In October, the aldermen heard from Ron Laszewski, the Lindbergh High School rugby coach and a founding member of the St. Louis Bombers rugby team. Laszewski outlined the Bombers’ proposal for a “premier rugby facility” in the southeast corner of Bander Park.

At a special Board of Aldermen meeting in February, the city and the Bombers put pen to paper and entered into a 25-year lease for the rugby club to lease 15 acres at a rate of $1,000 for the first year, $2,000 for the second year and then $3,000 a year.

Not long after the lease was signed, neighbors — many from the Tapawingo Subdivision — approached city officials, crying foul on the lease process, claiming it had been “shady” and that the special meeting where the lease was approved did not follow proper procedures. Representatives of Tapawingo had been in attendance at that special meeting to discuss street repairs. At the time, no one spoke out against the lease.

But many of those residents were out in full force at the Sept. 10 meeting, in one last effort to convince the board to reconsider the city’s lease with the Bombers.

“We were paying attention and we were told there would be public input. It was never provided. It was never solicited. That’s disenfranchisement,” said Tapawingo resident John Stephens, one of 16 speakers against the Bombers’ proposal during public comments. “People want to have a voice. The citizens… should have the first and last word, and they will.”

Stephens’ wife, Gena Stephens, told the board that she formed a group with other concerned residents called “Friends of Bander Park,” and that the group hired an attorney to look into what they believe were “procedural deficits” in the lease signing. However, both City Attorney Robert E. Jones and Mayor Pat Fribis maintained that the city followed all proper laws.

Sandra Jo Ankney told the aldermen that she was concerned about the use of fertilizers and pesticides on the rugby fields, especially in the event of flooding.

“Year-round applications of pesticides, fungicides and fertilizer are mandatory in field maintenance for rugby,” said Ankney. “Surface water will take all chemicals with it out of drains, along the sides and into Bander Park… when the flood waters abate, toxic chemicals remain everywhere. In the grass, in the fishing lake and in the fish.”

Ankney also expressed her frustrations that a list of questions that she had submitted to the Bombers at the August meeting had not been satisfactorily answered in her opinion.

Steve Bersche

Greg Colombo, who is not related to Mark Colombo, was one of two speakers supportive of the Bombers’ proposal.

“I host their events currently at my establishment (Colombo’s Cafe and Tavern). I host them after practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights, after-match parties on Saturdays… In those 15 years that we’ve hosted events for them, not a single instance where a Bomber has caused any trouble at my bar,” said Colombo, who added that while he was happy the Bombers would get their own facility, he would be sad to see them go. “I might be the only Sunset Hills resident to directly suffer an economic loss as a result of the Bombers coming to Sunset Hills, yet here I am fully supporting their cause.”

The tension was also palpable between aldermen, as each went around to offer their “final thoughts” following public comment.

Mark Colombo, Bersche and Baebler, who lives in the Tapawingo Subdivision and has sided with the residents along with McMunn, got into a verbal exchange with one another over the proposal.

Baebler suggested that Colombo, Bersche and other aldermen were conspiring with one another during a recess at the meeting.

“There’s nothing nefarious going on here, why are you even insinuating that?” said Mark Colombo. “… I can’t believe you just said that.”

“I can’t believe a lot of things that have been said,” replied Baebler.

“Well… if you notice that when Dee doesn’t get her way, she goes in that direction,” said Bersche.

In his final thoughts, Mark Colombo said that he would prefer to lease the land to the Bombers for a dollar and felt that a private-public partnership was the best way to help the city manage Bander Park.

“I’ve talked to many people here and I have a real problem… I get things like ‘We don’t want this type of people (rugby players) in our community, they’re not like us,’ and I’m going to be honest with you… it’s a very nasty elitism,” said Colombo. “It’s an equivalency of socioeconomic racism.”