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New compromise solution protects both Wiegand property and rebuilt levee

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 20, 2009 - Sculptor Don Wiegand's studio may be saved from efforts to protect the Chesterfield Valley from another devastating flood.

A plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen flood protection in the area that was inundated in 1993 had threatened to demolish the 83-year-old building that Wiegand has used not only as a studio but also as a community meeting place.

A grassroots effort to Save our Studio prompted a letter-writing campaign to public officials, trying to influence the Corps and the Monarch-Chesterfield Levee District to come up with alternatives that would accomplish the same level of flood protection but not require the studio and surrounding land to be destroyed.

Last week, that goal may have been met.

In a meeting of representatives from the Corps, the levee district and Wiegand, a compromise plan, costing about $3 million, was advanced that would allow the building to be saved. It calls for a combination T-wall levee to be built about 30 feet behind the house and smaller I-wall levees to be built on either side of the building on top of the levee that is currently there.

Now, that earthen levee comes right up to the back of the Wiegand studio, which is also where the sculptor lives. The compromise proposal would have the Corps acquiring land behind the building, paying the sculptor several hundred thousands of dollars for the right of way, according to David Human, attorney for the levee district.

That way, he said, the strengthened levee would be farther away from the building than it is now.

If Wiegand is willing to accept less money, Human said, he could contribute part of the funds to lengthening the I-wall on either side of the house.

Besides saving the studio, Human said, the new proposal would also preserve most of the land around it. He estimated that only 10 or so of the 170 trees on the site would be affected.

Human said the new plan was one of a number of ones considered in recent weeks. The push to save the studio, he said, plus other factors, have made it the favored proposal at this point.

"Looking at the cost of some of the other alternatives," he said, "they found some holes that resulted in those plans become more expensive. It made this plan closer to being cost-effective and put this plan on the table as something that might be an option."

Human said the proposal became even more attractive when the possibility of legal action was factored in.

"If it ends up in court," he said, "based on our numbers, this would not necessarily be the most cost-effective plan. We don't think at this point that's where we are going."

Human said the proposal still needs some tweaking. He expects a follow-up meeting to be called in the next week to 10 days. If all goes well, he said, he expects to have a letter of understanding agreeable to all parties by the end of August.

Nancy Carver, whose group Save our Studio had taken an active role in trying to preserve the Wiegand property, said in a statement after the meeting that she hoped the continued cooperative effort would help reach "an agreement that will accomplish the objectives of reinforcing the levee while preserving the history and the vibrant nature of the property."

She said the Corps has been asked to mark the land and provide drawings to show precisely what the impact of its latest proposal would be. She also noted that Wiegand hopes to erect two other buildings on the site, for education, non-profits and studio space, so he wants to make sure that land remains for that purpose.

Carver has led efforts to have backers of the studio write public officials to save the property. Two rallies there this month have seen a growing number of people expressing support for the effort, and she said that the public response has helped reach the settlement.

Neither Human nor Tracy Kelsey, project manager for the Corps of Engineers, was willing to go that far, in terms of what impact the letter-writing campaign might have had. Both said that the main goal has always been to come up with the most cost-effective, well-engineered plan to protect the eastern edge of the Chesterfield Valley area.

Rich Astrack, another project manager who attended Thursday's meeting, put it this way:

"We always prefer to have the least impact on the environment. That's what we work toward, and that's why we are taking the extra step to working with the levee district."

Human said the willingness of the Corps to explore alternative solutions helped bring what appears to be a satisfactory end to the issue.

"I have to give a lot of credit to the Corps," he said. "They had a lot of patience in dealing with the levee district and the property owner in pursuing and being willing to look at a number of alternatives we have suggested."