Prairie Village neighbors are figuring out a new purpose for a fire pit they built on a city island near the Village Shops after the city council scolded them this week for acting without the city's permission.
The fire pit created a firestorm of discussion at the Prairie Village City Council recently but in the end the council allowed the pit to stay as long as it’s repurposed and plans brought before the council.
Fired-up council members were surprised that a local landscaper, Brian Stouse, built the structure — featuring a circular stone seating area — without asking the city. Councilwoman Ruth Hopkins called it “a great breach of protocol.
“I want to know how someone would think they have the right to build on city property,” Hopkins said. “I think if we sanction this we’re not going to be able to stop anyone from building.”
Stouse, the owner Bear Landscaping, told the council the project features high-end materials and quality construction. “We ask for grace and forgiveness,” he said. “We’d really like to keep it.”
Last fall, Stouse’s company built a Belgard stone fire pit and surrounding sitting wall at the request of two members of his homeowners association who wanted to beautify the island, he said in an interview. He lives across the street from the island, which sits at the triangle where Prairie and Oxford streets come together off 69th Street toward Mission Road.
“It’s been an eyesore, Stouse said. “I’ve lived here 12 years and it’s been nothing but a pile of dirt.”
They wanted to build a space where neighbors could come together — and they did at Halloween, the one time the fire pit has been used, he said. Thirty to 40 folks people to the little island that night, warming up with friends in between trick or treating.
“We just wanted community,” said Stouse, who did not know he was building on city property.
After that night, a board member of the homes association complained that the island was city property. The group agreed to take their project to the council.
After a lengthy discussion Tuesday, the council voted 11-1 to approve a motion by Councilman Eric Mikkelson requiring the group to acknowledge that the city owns the traffic island and to find a new use for the fire pit. The council halted additional improvements — the project isn’t done — until the city council gives its approval.
Councilman Steve Noll said the city would be legally liable for the fire pit. He also said allowing the fire pit could set a precedent for future island projects by neighbors. “What if the next block wants a basketball goal?” he said. “Who decides how the islands are going to be used?”
Councilman David Morrison, however, said he loved the project and the public works department should consult with the group as they move forward with additional island plans.
Opposed was Councilman Andrew Wang. He said the structure was an example of thinking that “it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. They knew they couldn’t build a fire pit on a city island.”
Councilwoman Laura Wassmer said a city letter would be mailed to all homes associations with guidelines regarding city traffic islands. “Basically they must seek city approval for anything beyond planting flowers and maintaining flower beds,” she said.
Before the project, residents had been dragging their own fire pits to the island and using them throughout the summer. The city learned in December that the island was being modified, according to Keith Bredehoeft, public works director.
“We saw significant work going on the right-of-way,” he said. “A fire pit had been constructed without our knowledge.”
He said the small traffic island is surrounded by public streets on three sides, two of which run through residential streets connected to the Village Shops. He said a fire pit wasn’t appropriate because of a potential distraction to drivers as well as a danger to children playing in the area.
Prairie Village resident Chuck Dehner said he approached residents about beautifying the island after noticing the island’s urn was cracked and on its side. “I felt a great urgency to do something,” he said.
Dehner said volunteers have traditionally taken care of city islands, so he asked nearby neighbors to come up with a beautification plan. They developed the idea of a community circle with a fire pit. “I didn’t know there was a protocol,” he said.
Several others, including Prairie Village resident Matt Johnson, spoke in favor of the plan. “I thought it was a great idea.”
Stouse said he’s happy with the outcome.
“They just don’t want homeowners going on city property and building stuff. That’s common sense,” he said.