One late night last November, someone broke into a rural home on a grassy hilltop in Cass County — what appeared to be a very nice home. Four levels, 10,000 square feet, a deck reaching toward a 25-acre lake. Got to be some cool stuff in there.
Nope, squat. So they busted a few windows.
Not exactly a major crime. Nor particularly newsworthy. Except for one thing: That house went up 20 years ago, and no one has ever spent a night inside let alone lived there because the owners and the U.S. Army are at war.
Army officials say the house should never have been built because it encroaches on a security easement around a training facility in a wooded area south of 195th Street between Cleveland and Prospect avenues.
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Dick and Joyce Robinson, the owners, say they got verbal permission to build their house from the training site’s previous tenant — the Air Force. The Cold War had ended, and Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base was closing down. Yes, they acknowledge, they gambled by starting without an official OK.
“We jumped the gun,” said Dick Robinson, 77, a contractor. “But now, heck, my life is over. This place has been sitting here like this 15 years. There was a time for restrictions, but not anymore.”
There’s also this: He had 230 acres to work with, and just a matter of a few feet would have put the house outside the restricted area.
Army officials say the facility serves a vital mission for training soldiers, particularly in the global war on terror. The easement is for the safety of the public because of air drops. In 2002, an official with the Army Corps of Engineers said the Robinsons’ decision to build the house “reflects a total disregard for the interest” of the Army.
On Friday, a spokesperson with the 88th Regional Support Command based at Fort McCoy, Wis., said the Robinsons never had permission to build the house and that Dick Robinson’s request to officials, including the president at the time, had been denied.
For years now, the two sides — the Robinsons live in another house across the road — have engaged in an uneasy peace that at times escalated to threats, harassment and near violence.
“It’s been one thing after another out there,” said Chris Collins, who is married to the Robinsons’ youngest daughter. “A lot of people would have given up by now. But they’ve put a life’s savings into that house. They can’t finish it, and they can’t walk away.
“The whole ordeal has just been a nightmare.”
It’s also an absolute mishmash of poor judgment, stubbornness, waste, rigid bureaucracy, neighborly disregard and lost dreams — the story of a man, an Air Force veteran, who sees himself as a proud patriot being abused by the very military and country he so cherishes.
Adding to the drama is that the Belton Training Area has long been a mystery in the neighborhood with tales of UFOs, underground bunkers, flares in the trees and nighttime parachute drops.
The Robinsons — Joyce declined to talk for this story — can’t get away from it. Every day when they walk outside, they see their retirement dream house on the hill, a reminder of the nightmare it had become.
This week, two days before one of the two alleged window-smashers appeared in court, Dick Robinson sat in the cab of his pickup a few hundred feet from the house and talked about the vandalism case. He and Joyce had spent hours, sweat and a fortune on the place, and some yahoos go in and tear it up.
“So I’m going to go in there and start working on it again,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing it up there every day.”
And the Army?
“I don’t care any more,” he said. “I’m sick and probably won’t be around much longer. Doctor told me to put things in order, and I’ve put what I own in other people’s names.
“That’s all I’m saying.”
Outside the octagon
Satellite imagery feeds the legend of the Belton Training Area.
The view from 200 miles up reveals the wooded area to be a 184-acre green octagon. Neighbors talk of mysterious lights in the woods, nuclear bombs, low-flying Chinook helicopters and nighttime training ops.
“I can always tell when something is going on in the world because of activity over there,” said Shirley Ellis, a neighbor on the opposite side of the octagon from the Robinsons.
She’s lived there 36 years, a little farther from the octagon and outside its zone of exclusion, and has had her own issues with the Army.
“They’ve cut my fence and threatened to shoot my cattle,” she said. “They like to fly in low over the cattle, practically blow the little calves away. They act like we’re in their way.
“And anytime we get an officer that sees things our way — he’s not there long.”
Dick Robinson is quick to talk about parachute misses, like the time soldiers landed in his lake. And when an air-dropped load of railroad ties nearly took out a neighbor’s propane tank.
Of course, those incidents support the Army’s reason for the restricted area, as well as its position that Robinson shouldn’t have built his house where he did.
On Friday, an Army spokesperson said: “The 88th RSC has no information regarding any such harassment or threats” to residents.
The training area goes back to when the Air Force acquired the land in 1955, the heyday of the Cold War. Ideal location, officials thought at the time — close to Grandview Air Force Base, soon to be renamed Richards-Gebaur, but far enough from Kansas City’s urban sprawl.
At first, rules prohibited human habitation in the area because the site would be used for munitions storage, hazardous waste disposal and training. But later, houses began to spring up in the neighborhood, but not in the restricted area.
The Robinsons bought their property in the mid-1970s, mainly for their contracting business, Robinson Diversified Services. Their U-shaped land amounted to roughly 230 acres, essentially a half section minus the northern half of the octagon.
They later inquired, repeatedly, about building a home inside the easement. Things looked promising in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War and causing military bases to close all over the country. Richards-Gebaur appeared on the hit list.
The talk in the neighborhood was that the military was bugging out and that the training area would revert to private development, with adjacent property owners getting first dibs. Dick Robinson said the commander at Richards-Gebaur told him he could finally build his house.
He has lots of correspondence detailing his attorney’s discussions with military personnel indicating the restrictions would be lifted. Based on that, he and Joyce started building, doing the work themselves. If it took five or six years, so be it.
But during that time, the Army took over the training site. When officials with the 88th Regional Support Command learned of the Robinsons’ house, they directed the Army Corps of Engineers to enforce the easement and resolve the encroachment.
Finally in 2002, the Army issued the couple a cease-and-desist order. In a letter, Greg Wilson, chief of real estate for the Army Corps of Engineers, told the Robinsons not only to stop construction, but to remove the unfinished house.
Dick Robinson said they weren’t about to do that. So they put on a roof and siding and walked away.
“That was 15 years ago,” he said. “I guess we sort of got caught in a trap.”
At 77, Dick Robinson’s a working man — dirty pickup, tools in the bed, rugged gloves, overalls, he goes sunup to sundown.
He’s a Trump guy. No fan of Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter, whom he likes to call “the peanut farmer.”
And in all this mess, the thing that eats at him to no end is the perception that he is anti-military.
“I enlisted at 17 in the Air Force Reserve,” he said. “Went on active duty during the Berlin (crisis). I fully support the military and all they do for this country’s freedom.”
To get that point across to soldiers, Robinson has installed a series of signs at the gates and along the access road the Army uses to cross his land to get to the octagon.
One is titled: “A Message to Those Who Serve.”
It begins, “As I near the end of my life,” and goes on to proclaim his love of country and appreciation for their service. Another sign is “Assault & Battery” and tells of an alleged incident in which his wife got in an altercation with a soldier, her shirt got hung up on a jeep mirror and she ended up in a ditch.
He’s to a point where he just wants it all to end. But he doesn’t think the government will work with him.
“If the federal government can’t negotiate with Joyce and me, how can they negotiate with a foreign country?” he asks.
At one point, though, the government offered the Robinsons a deal that would allow them to occupy the house in exchange for giving the Army a new access road to the training area and a provision that the Army would be “held harmless” for any damage ever done to any Robinson property.
The couple rejected it. They didn’t trust the government.
The recent day as Dick Robinson sat in the pickup, he said he didn’t know what he would do with the dream house on the hill. If the people who broke in last November would have cased the place better, they would have learned the inside is unfinished. No drywall, no plumbing, no electrical.
He supposes he could finish it into a commercial building — only residences are specifically prohibited by the Army’s restrictions.
“We’ve even talked about turning the whole place into a cemetery,” he said. “We could be buried inside.
“That’s what Joyce wants.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182