Archive for Saturday, August 21, 1999

EXPLOSIVE GROWTH CREATES FALLOUT

August 21, 1999

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Developers say the growth is good; others say it is taking a toll on the rest of Lawrence.

It's no secret to anyone that Lawrence has experienced phenomenal growth in the past 10 years.

Since 1989, officials estimate the city's population has grown 23 percent. Its geographic size has grown 19 percent, and the number of housing units available is up 27 percent.

Many people argue that such growth has exacted a toll on the rest of the city, which now has to provide services to a much larger area.

Developers, on the other hand, argue that growth has paid for itself by adding substantial wealth to the tax base and creating more economic opportunity for everyone.

It's a debate city officials have confronted many times in the past and one they will face again in the coming weeks as they consider raising utility rates and connection charges to help pay for the city's expanding water and sewer systems.

"We're constantly fighting city hall, trying to keep 'impact fees' in check," said Lee Queen, president of Edmondson Construction Co. Inc. and president-elect of the Lawrence Homebuilders Assn.

What developers call "impact fees," the city calls "system development charges." They are intended pay for the impact that new development has on the city's infrastructure, or the cost of enhancing the city's utility system to extend services to a wider territory.

Rate hikes weighed

Under a utility rate plan being considered by the city, the cost of hooking up new water service to a typical home would climb from $315 now to $645 in 2004. The cost of a new sewer connection would go from $410 to $810.

Those are just some of the costs that developers -- and, eventually, the home buyers -- pay when new subdivisions are built.

Developers also pay the cost of building new streets in the neighborhood, and sometimes they are assessed the cost of widening major thoroughfares and arterial streets to carry traffic to the new subdivision.

By the time those costs are added to the already high cost of land in Douglas County, plus the cost of labor and materials used in building a new home, developers say it is getting difficult to build a new home that's affordable for most families.

"I think it's hard to build for a first-time home buyer," said Tim Stultz, president of Highland Construction. "We've almost priced ourselves out of the market. I don't think you can get (a new home) done for anything less than $120,000."

Stultz, who says his company has never built a home or subdivision east of Iowa Street, is among those who believe the benefits of growth outweigh the costs, and that increases in the city's system development fees are unjustified.

"I personally believe there has been a net gain," he said. "When you have new growth, we're paying sales tax, (and) the new people coming into the community are spending their wages in the community, buying clothes, food and furniture."

Growing pains

Other people, however, say the "impact fees" cover only part of the cost of growth -- that of laying in new infrastructure.

The fees don't cover the cost of ongoing maintenance, they argue, nor do they cover other costs borne by the community -- such as building new parks and schools, and providing police and fire protection to a larger territory.

Built into the city's 2000 budget, for instance, are plans to open a new police substation at 15th and Kasold and plans for relocation of city fire stations in an effort to improve response times.

But Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical Chief Jim McSwain said those efforts only begin to address the city's growing public safety needs.

"What has been done (to this point) does not address ... what needs to be done," McSwain said.

He said the department has had plans since about 1994 to relocate two fire stations and build a third in order to provide proper coverage to the city, and it is only now that the first part of that plan is getting funded.

Lawrence avoided some of the cost of expanding its fire department a few years ago when the department merged with the Douglas County ambulance service, but McSwain said even that has not met the needs of a growing city.

"We haven't built a new fire station in Lawrence since 1982," McSwain said.

Douglas County Commissioner Charles Jones also believes growth is taking a toll on the community, and he thinks it's time policy-makers at both the city and county take a new look at the issue.

"You're never going to have 100 percent agreement, but we need to have a methodology to look at the entire cost of growth -- both infrastructure and services -- and come up with an analytical approach to decide who's going to pay those costs."

-- Peter Hancock's phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is phancock@ljworld.com.

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