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Fight over waterfall in Wildwood is settled – for now

Waterfall feature on the property of Tom and Karen Roberts in Wildwood
Waterfall feature on the property of Tom and Karen Roberts in Wildwood

The nearly three-year saga over a disputed waterfall on private property in Wildwood was finally settled earlier this month.

During its Dec. 2 meeting, the Wildwood Planning and Zoning Commission voted 7-3 to adopt the recommendations submitted by Planning and Parks Director Joe Vujnich. In his extensive report, Vujnich advised the commission to approve the permit for use of the waterfall with the condition of a mitigation plan to address a potential algae growth.

In most ways, it was a victory for Tom Roberts, who owns the property on which the waterfall in question resides. Roberts said the review process for his conditional use permit that has not only taken several years but untold hours of time from city officials.

“It didn’t have to go on this way,” he said. “It’s just because of one person.”

Roberts was referring to David Hudson and his wife, Diane, who has been the source of numerous complaints to city officials over their neighbor’s waterfall, which they believe is a health hazard.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Michael Lee (Ward 4) and Vice-Chair Fran Gragnani (Ward 1) listen to testimony about the waterfall on Tom Roberts’ property during the December 2nd meeting (Photo: Jeff Bricker)

“My wife returned on Aug. 13 from being out of town for three weeks and was exposed, while on our property, to the waterfall in operation. And she again experienced sore throat and lung discomfort,” Dave Hudson said at the commission’s Sept. 16 meeting. Those were just the latest in trail of serious allegations of health problems both of the Hudsons have experienced.

When those concerns were first raised by the Hudsons, they caused the commission to pause and seek more details on what was in the water on the Roberts’ property. Because the theory was that the negative impacts to the Hudsons’ health was being caused by the water as it was aerosolized, an air quality or “smell test” was sought.

The burden to find a company willing and capable of performing such a test fell to Vujnich. His search was challenging and only one proposal was submitted for review. That proposal came with a nearly $40,000 price tag at which the commission balked. However, they never had the opportunity to vote on the proposal as it was quickly withdrawn by the vendor.

Vujnich reported to the commission that it was better the proposal was withdrawn as any money spent on a “smell test” would likely be wasted.

“There are no adopted standards [for air testing],” Vujnich said again at the most recent meeting, recalling the challenges his department faced in fulfilling the expectations of the commission.

In the meantime, Roberts had his own testing done on the water and submitted the results to the commission. Vujnich included the results of that test in the final analysis his department prepared on the matter, but at the time the commission was not satisfied.

Roberts held his own theories on why the commission failed to grant him final approval for his waterfall. In the past he’s implied there was a certain faction that was against him without cause. But in a letter dated Dec. 2, 2019, Roberts went as far as to accuse one key member of the commission of playing favorites.

Fran Gragnani [Ward 1], vice-chair of the commission, was singled out by Roberts because of her admitted “relationship” with the Hudsons.  

“She cannot be impartial due to her relationship with the Hudsons. Anything less than a full recusal by Commissioner Gragnani will be considered less than impartial and biased,” Roberts wrote.

Note: Gragnani is the spouse of Dr. John Gragnani, Wildwood City Council member for Ward 1. She did not recuse herself from the Dec. 2 meeting and voted against adopting the recommendations of Vujnich.

Earlier this year, the commission requested another water quality test be completed and Vujnich again was tasked with finding a firm to perform the work. This time testing would be more routine, but only after the commission, Roberts and the Hudsons agreed on what would be evaluated in the test.

“The chemical and nutrient levels are within reasonable levels in my opinion,” Dean Dickerson, ARDL VP for Technical Services, wrote in a Nov. 14 email to Vujnich.

Commissioner Vicki Helfrey (Ward 2) on the Wildwood Planning and Zoning Commission asks questions of Planning Director Joe Vujnich at a December 2nd meeting (Photo: Jeff Bricker)

Although the commission was presented with findings from ARDL, an engineering firm contracted by Wildwood to conduct a water quality test, those results were not conclusive enough for a majority of the commission.

Just prior to commission receiving the results of the ARDL and further information from Vujnich, Hudson testified in a public meeting that he had spoken with a member of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He shared with the commission that the person he spoke with at MDNR had concerns over the ARDL test results.

That raised the ire of Mayor Jim Bowlin who questioned why nearly $5,000 of taxpayer money was spent to have ARDL perform the test if commissioners were going to reject the results.

“We’ve listened to the concerns and the consultant we paid for has concluded no harm exists. To now push that aside for a free opinion from MDNR in hopes of a different result means those pushing for it should have pursued that option in [the] first place – and saved our residents $5,000. The time has come for the commission to closely consider the option of ending any further expense on this matter,” Bowlin said after the last meeting.

Despite the mayor’s objections, the commission instructed Vujnich to follow up with the representative from MDNR that Hudson had spoken with earlier. Although the state lacks any jurisdiction over the Roberts’ waterfall, several members of the commission felt strongly that any insights from MDNR would be helpful.

Vujnich reported to the commission that he spent nearly two hours on the phone over the course of two separate conversations with Lynn Milberg, Water Quality Monitoring Section Chief from the Environmental Services Program of MDNR. While he expressed gratitude for Milberg’s time, Vujnich said her professional opinion was not conclusive.

“Her opinion was not as definitive as one might have liked … “Vujnich said, while adding that Milberg’s assertion that the water feature should be treated had merit.

Table of several test results from the Roberts’ waterfall (Source: Report from Wildwood Director of Planning and Parks)
Table of several test results from the Roberts’ waterfall (Source: Report from Wildwood Director of Planning and Parks)

When questioned by members of the commission on his recommendations in relation to all the information provided, Vujnich said: “Although there is no clear threat … the department does believe the large water feature should be treated and treated to the extent of large algae that are present.”

Vujnich noted that “by treating the water, algae blooms can be controlled.” He said the benefit of that action is not limited to the benefits of surrounding neighbors, but also the property owners, animals, livestock, etc.

This led to an extended discussion among commissioners, Bowlin and Vujnich about what type of treatment should be utilized and if those costs for treatment should be capped. However, some members questioned whether the commission had the authority to prescribe a method of treatment to a private citizen regarding private property.

“I don’t think you can limit someone to what kind of treatment they do on their lakes because conditions change from year to year,” Vicki Helfrey [Ward 2] said to her colleagues.

Ultimately, the question of what method of treatment is taken was left to the Roberts to decide with a maximum cost of $1,000. The commission plans to review the condition of the waterfall a year from now.

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