Irony was afoot at the Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen’s Aug. 13 meeting, as the board, citizens and key stakeholders spent two and a half hours discussing a matter – the St. Louis Bombers Rugby proposal – that a week earlier had been struck from the meeting agenda.
Perhaps most ironic was the emergence of two aldermen who publicly acknowledged their connections to the Bombers, yet took opposing stances on the rugby complex.
Despite postponement of a proposed ordinance to grant the Bombers an amended development plan for a rugby complex in Bander Park, the former location of Sunset Hills Golf Course, Mayor Pat Fribis allowed residents to comment on the proposal. Twelve did, and all but two bitterly denounced the rugby complex.
Gena Stephens was one of many residents who brought materials to project on the overhead screen in support of her case against the rugby proposal. She constructed from meeting minutes a 10-month timeline she said illustrates a lack of proper public process.
“(City officials) have listened to an outside group, not the citizens,” she said. “This is the big picture, and it’s not a pretty picture.”
Kermit Starnes said he initially had no concerns about the rugby park, as it was presented as “a few kids practicing there.” He said, however, he “feels thoroughly lied to by the Bombers.”
“A lot of residents of our city do not want this rugby complex. You can stop this,” Bill Erickson told the board.
Jenna Hnilo had some especially sharp criticism for the Bombers and its proposal. She dismissed the club’s offer of a 10-percent discount for Sunset Hills residents and complained that “now we’ll have to pay cops to patrol this area.” She even pointed out a blog post on the Bomber’s website by a player that contained a word most consider obscene. (Bomber officials attempted to explain the ribald reference, saying the player is Australian and the word is not considered obscene in his circles.)
But Erin Kelley, a resident and director of Step Up St. Louis, a sub-stance-abuse group, said the criticisms of the rugby park are “exaggerated” and that the Bombers represent “adults kids can trust.”
Ron Laszewski, the face of the Bombers, said there has been “misinformation” swirling about the rugby park proposal, and he attempted to address some of it. He stated in part that:
• LED lighting standards at the field will not shine on neighboring properties.
• Traffic will not be an issue because only about 40 players, twice a week, and no more than 150 spectators, on Saturdays, will be going to the park.
• No non-rugby activities, including fundraising events and other team sports, will be allowed under the lease without special permission from the city.
• The club will not sub-lease the acreage to any third parties.
• Alcohol will eventually be sold at the complex, but only beer and none after any evening rugby matches.
After the public comments, Mayor Fribis – in apparent response to critics’ allegations – said she has no affiliation with the St. Louis Bombers and asked each alderman to reveal what, if any, connections they may have with the club.
That was when Alderman Nathan Lipe stepped forward as the proposal’s chief proponent, revealing he had played rugby as a Bomber. Lipe pushed back at critics who have attacked him personally for his support of the rugby proposal, even going as far as calling him “shady” and an “S.O.B.”
“I stand by my argument that this will be a great thing for the city,” he said.
He said that Laszewski, his former coach, approached him last fall after the city acknowledged donation of the 122-acre Sunset Hills Golf Course from Steven Bander. Laszewski told the alderman the donated land would make a great venue for a regional rugby complex.
“He said the Bombers would offer to take the burden of maintaining part of the property off of the city, which appealed to me,” Lipe said. He went on to say that the Lindbergh High School rugby team would benefit if the proposal becomes a reality.
On the other side of the argument is Alderman Dee Baebler, who according to an email Lipe produced originally supported the Bombers’ plan. She has a son who played for the Bombers, “and right now, he’s very angry with me. I think Coach Ron is a great guy, but this proposal still doesn’t fit,” she said.
Baebler has been in contact with the Land Learning Foundation, a private, tax-exempt group formed in 2003 to preserve both public and private wetlands. She and the group have discussed ideas about what the city can do with the property other than leasing it to the Bombers, including turning it over outright to Land Learning and making it a waterfowl area.
“I don’t see what the big rush is,” Baebler said.
She cited the planning and zoning commission’s recommendation that any plan for the rugby park that includes lighting go back to P&Z for additional review, then motioned the proposal be sent back to the commission. Alderman Ann McMunn seconded Baebler’s motion, but it failed 2-5.
“So I guess we won’t follow our rules,” Baebler said.
The rest of the aldermen – as well as City Engineer Bryson Baker, Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Brown and City Administrator Eric Sterman – declared they have no ties to the Bombers. But McMunn, who was absent at the February special meeting when the board unanimously approved a lease agreement with the Bombers, said, “I don’t doubt that the vote was legal. But was it ethical?” Neither Ward 1 representative, she nor Baebler, participated in the lease vote.
Mayor Fribis said the city followed all procedures in voting on the lease, and she appears to have no interest in revisiting the agreement.
“This was not done ‘under the table.’ It was reported in our local newspapers and listed on the city website. There was nothing hidden at all,” she said.
The development plan will likely be voted on at the board’s September meeting. The board meets the second Tuesday of the month at 6 p.m.