A St. Louis County couple built a ‘world-class’ garden. They say their city is ruining it. | Local Business

BELLERIVE ACRES — Bruce and Janet Buehrig have spent decades cultivating a “world-class” garden in their backyard here.

They’ve planted exotic flowers, trees and shrubs, installed winding paths, foot bridges, a pond and even a waterfall. Bruce co-founded the St. Louis Hosta Society, and Janet, known as “Chick,” has become an expert on daylilies. They’ve led tours of groups from across the country to see their work.

“Their garden is extraordinary,” said Phyllis Weidman, president of the St. Louis Hosta Society.

But in recent years, the Buehrigs say, that backyard oasis has come under threat. A stormwater pipe underneath their garden has begun to crumble and break, creating pools of water, washing away soil, opening sinkholes in the ground, and undermining decades of the Buehrigs’ work, they claim in a lawsuit. Now the couple wants Bellerive Acres, a North County municipality of 180 people next to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, to pay $500,000 to fix it — more than the city’s entire annual budget.

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The Buehrigs and their attorney declined comment for this story. But, in the suit, they say the city is using the sewer system in an “intentional, unreasonable, negligent and reckless manner.”

Bellerive Acres isn’t rushing to comply.

The city council voted down a proposal last year to replace the pipe in the Buehrigs’ backyard, and recently, they hired an outside attorney to handle the lawsuit.

Elected officials declined to comment. But Mary Mifflin, a neighbor who was also sued by the Buehrigs in the fight over the pipe, said the city is doing the right thing for taxpayers.

“If they win, it would be a travesty of justice,” she said.

The fight on Lot 31 started in 2017.

Bellerive Acres’ narrow, winding streets create a circular path of red brick houses, large trees and manicured lawns. The Buehrigs’ house sits at the back of the neighborhood near the bottom of a hill. The backyard, packed with plants and conifer trees, slopes farther down toward West Drive on the UMSL campus.

When it rains, water runs down the streets, into a grate and through a pipe that flows under the garden to a creek near the Buehrig’s back property line.

The Mifflins v. the Buehrigs

But other debris can enter the system as well, and, over time, the pipe has deteriorated and cracked. In some places, it became blocked or started leaking. Sinkholes formed. Water pooled. The soil and earth eroded, the suit said.

The couple first noticed the damage in April 2017 and alerted the city, which was working on a plan to expand the narrow streets that wind through the neighborhood. Some officials proposed repairing the pipe in 2018 while widening the roads. Preliminary engineers’ drawings put the replacement pipe on land alongside the neighbors’ house.

For years, the Buehrigs and Mifflins argued over who owned roughly 1,600 square feet of that space. The Buehrigs’ garden wound around the house and touched part of the land, and the Mifflins had tried to build a fence there.

The city decided to put the pipe project on hold while the two families debated. Then, in February 2019, the Buehrigs sued to take possession, arguing they had maintained the area and landscaped it for years and therefore had a right to it. The Mifflins’ attorneys said it belonged to them.

During potential settlement negotiations, the Mifflins “reluctantly” agreed to take the pipe and put it in the side yard as long as they could move a fence back to where the Buehrigs had planted along the property line, according to a letter sent by the Mifflins to the city.

But that proposal was not accepted, the Mifflins said, and the Buehrigs eventually won possession.

In November 2020, the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, which manages stormwater and sewage, and a local engineering company presented two options to the Bellerive Acres council.

The first, which would have cost roughly $200,000, required crews to dig a large, open hole where a new stormwater pipe could be placed and buried. The other plan — a $500,000 option — would have required tunneling underneath the ground.

The Buehrigs preferred the more expensive tunneling method to preserve their landscaping. They said through an attorney they would not grant an easement to complete the “open cut” project, according to meeting minutes.

The Buehrigs v. the city

The sewer district eventually agreed to reimburse the city for up to $545,000 of the project after it was complete. But residents debated whether the city should foot the bill up front.

Some, who were in favor of the project, said Bellerive Acres should move forward because the stormwater drainage would help all of the residents and the sewer district would ultimately pay for it. Others argued that the city should not be responsible for fixing stormwater pipes on private land with a more expensive tunneling method.

City officials held a town hall meeting in early January 2021 to talk about the project. Days later, in closed session, the council voted it down 3-1.

In September, the Buehrigs sued the city. They said Bellerive Acres had done the equivalent of taking their property without compensation by failing to maintain the pipes beneath it.

The city, for its part, said in court filings the damage was the Buehrigs’ fault and Bellerive Acres shouldn’t be liable.

A trial in the case is set for January. What’s unclear: How a city with a $400,000 annual budget could afford a $500,000 payout.

The city’s attorney asked Travelers insurance last year to cover the damage, but a representative said the company wouldn’t cover a claim of taking of property.

“As far as coverage goes, there’s a pretty clear exclusion,” said Sam Alton, who works full-time as St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell’s chief of staff but also serves as a city attorney for area municipalities, including Bellerive Acres.

The Buehrigs, for their part, continue to work on their land. On a recent day, Bruce Buehrig was in front of the house, unloading what appeared to be bags of mulch from a van. When asked about the lawsuit, he said he didn’t want to talk about it.

Weidman, with the St. Louis Hosta Society, said her group was excited to get a tour of the garden later this year. She described its “incredible” collection of conifers, rare plants and daylilies. She said it’s likely an every day job to maintain.

“Every time you turn around,” she said, “there’s something new to see.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the annual budget for the city of Bellerive Acres.