Prairie Village council wrestles with how to handle rogue fire pit construction on traffic island

A circular fire pit structure on the Oxford Road and Prairie Lane traffic island was built without approval of the city, which owns the land.
A circular fire pit structure on the Oxford Road and Prairie Lane traffic island was built without approval of the city, which owns the land.

The “can-do” community spirit of a group of Prairie Village residents has opened a Pandora’s box of issues over development, maintenance and liability around one area traffic island.

This past fall, a small group of Prairie Village Homes Association homeowners started scratching out ideas for making the traffic island at Prairie Lane and Oxford Road, just west of the Village Shops, an attractive space for community gatherings.

“This island was a particular eye sore,” said Chuck Dehner, who has spearheaded efforts to beautify traffic islands in the area for years. “I took it upon myself to go out and do something about it.”

Dehner engaged a couple of people who lived in the area right around the traffic island, and encouraged them to come up with a plan. A group of neighbors had recently gotten together for a party on the island and brought a portable fire pit with them. It had been a great time, so some of the neighbors pitched the idea of building a permanent fire pit structure on the island. One of those neighbors, Brian Stouse, lives directly across from the island and owns a landscaping company. Stouse had one of his crews build a circular gathering area on the island out of stone with a fire pit in the middle. The whole thing took about a week to install, Stouse said, and his company did the work at cost.

Many of the neighbors loved the structure and viewed it as a major improvement. Groups of neighbors had been bringing portable fit pits — which are allowed under city code — and lawn chairs to the area for years. The new structure made those gatherings even more enjoyable, they said.

Trouble is, the city, which owns the property, had no idea what was going on. The neighbors never contacted them.

On Monday, the Prairie Village City Council questioned Dehner, Stouse and some of their neighbors about why they never sought out city approval — and tried to figure out what to do with the structure now that it’s there.

“I want to know how in the world someone would think they have the right to build on city property?” said councilor Ruth Hopkins, who has been involved with the statuary committee that’s charged with maintaining the sculptures in islands throughout the city for many years. “I think if we sanction this we’re not going to be able to stop anyone from building. I don’t want residents to think they have the right to build on islands and take down whatever is there.”

Representatives of the group noted that the plan for the fire pit had never been formally voted on by the home owners association board.

Dehner’s appearance Monday before the city council represented a marked change in demeanor. Dehner had been a fixture at council meetings for much of the previous year, where he would use the public comment section to berate the council for the passage and administration of the Village Shops and Corinth Square Community Improvement Districts. On Monday, Dehner’s tone bordered on obsequious as he took blame for the failure to contact the city.

“The lack of protocol rests with me,” he said, then suggested that the group simply didn’t know there was a protocol for getting plans approved for traffic island construction.

That argument clearly didn’t hold much weight with many of the councilors, who noted that Dehner knew where to find them when he wanted to criticize them.

“I find it very hard to believe that you didn’t know where to go if you wanted to get in touch with us,” said Councilor Terrance Gallagher to Dehner. “These people knew how to get in touch with us one way or the other.”

Public Works director Keith Bredehoeft noted that, had the proposal gone through the proper channels, the department would have steered the group away from the idea of a fire pit. Though the fire marshal who has inspected the installation says he has no issues with it, Bredehoeft said that, with the street surrounding the island, a fire in the center could be a distraction to passing motorists.

Councilor Steve Noll expressed serious concerns with the liability issues the city would face if the fire pit remained.

Ultimately, Councilor Eric Mikkelson put forth a motion that required the group to acknowledge the city owns the traffic island, that they stop use of the fire pit, and that they halt additional construction or improvements until they’ve been approved by the city. Additional improvements to the island will have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well. That measure passed 11-1, with Councilor Andrew Wang the dissenting vote. Wang felt that allowing the structure to stand set a dangerous precedent.

“Prairie Village’s history is not about, ‘Let’s do something, and if they don’t like it, it will be done, and it will be pretty, so they’ll leave us alone,'” Wang said. “It’s just completely, completely ridiculous.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that a representative of the Prairie Village Homes Association had committed to funding the construction of the fire pit. The homes association did not commit to any funding for the pit and never voted on whether to allow the structure. Homes association leadership only learned about the project after construction had already begun.

Chuck Dehner told the council that the "lack of protocol rests with me."
Chuck Dehner told the council that the “lack of protocol rests with me.”