Mark Dunning, Lee’s Summit director of codes enforcement, shook young Benjamin Pate’s hand.
BY RUSS PULLEY
Special to The Star
“I wanted to tell you, you built an awesome club house,” Dunning said. “I didn’t want to tear it down, but I had to. It was my job.”
While he talked with the 6-year-old boy, debris was being dumped onto a truck, the playhouse demolished on the city’s orders.
Benjamin, his father, and dozens of children and parents looked on Friday in the New Longview neighborhood while a bulldozer crushed the playhouse that kids had built board by board over a couple of summers.
Benjamin, smiling at the attention, shyly shook his head and replied yes or no to Dunning’s questions.
Dunning, who said he hated being the bad guy, promised Benjamin he’d come back to help him rebuild. After all, Dunning is also a father. He gave Benjamin a business card.
The neighborhood around 3141 S.W. Grandstand Circle turned a sad day into an event, with pizza and hoopla.
A television station showed up to record the proceedings, and students from New Longview Elementary School also taped a broadcast for their school.
David Gale, developer of the subdivision, provided pizza and a bulldozer. He passed out hard hats, so children could pose in front of their creation as Moms and Dads took pictures, before the dozer crushed the several-room shack.
Gale said he planned the event to turn the disappointment for neighborhood children into a good experience. He said parents told him of children crying themselves to sleep.
The tale began about 18 months ago during summer, when Benjamin used a few boards to start building a playhouse on a vacant lot. That lot sold, and he moved the small structure to another lot.
Soon other children in the neighborhood began helping him build. Parents would sit in the alley to have drinks and watch the construction and kids playing, said Amy McClure, a resident of New Longview.
The children scavenged scraps of lumber from home construction. Benjamin even bought some material with birthday money.
“Instead of them sitting inside and playing video games, we were encouraging them to come outside and play,” McClure said. “It’s kind of a bummer.”
McClure said she didn’t blame Gale, who didn’t have any choice but to remove the playhouse that was on a lot he still owns.
Dunning said that when his department got an anonymous call reporting trash and debris, Neighborhood Services Officer Marilyn Langton checked the lot and realized it was a playhouse. The codes department decided to handle the matter a little differently than usual, notifying Gale of the situation.
Dunning said that because a playhouse is considered an “accessory use,” it couldn’t remain because there was no house on the lot. He said it was a great reflection on the community, with the neighborhood turning a no-win situation into a positive learning experience.
“By doing all of this, the kids realize laws may exist that need to be followed, and that by working together, many things that could result in a negative outcome can end in a positive manner.”
Gale said the notice was the kindest codes violation letter he’d ever gotten.
Gale, the homeowners and their children are planning to build another playhouse in the spring, this time with help of volunteers, an architect, and planning to avoid violating city rules.
“We’re building a bigger and a better one,” Gale announced to the crowd.