This is a watershed era for North Lawrence as development pressures are challenging the character and future of the semirural neighborhood.
Large lots, fertile soil and relatively quiet streets are nothing new in North Lawrence.
It's the desire to build new homes, shops and warehouses that is. And that's sparking concern that development could increase flooding problems and wash away the neighborhood's semirural feel in the process.
"If you take a pond and you keep throwing rocks into it, it raises the water level and pushes water onto everybody else," said Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Assn. "You can't let them keep developing this area and flood everybody."
Drainage concerns from neighbors and development pressure from land speculators, residential developers and industrial park builders are pushing North Lawrence toward a watershed change. Residents say it's threatening the area's affordable housing, their retirement nest eggs and the neighborhood's livability.
To balance the interests of residents and builders, city officials are looking for a middle ground -- a high middle ground -- that could allow the neighborhood to evolve without stifling its small-town feel, leaving everyone wet or cutting off owners' rights to use their property for its highest and best use.
And for now, at least, the city's rules, regulations and capital-improvement plans can't keep up. One builder already has plans for a new 40-home subdivision at the neighborhood's eastern edge that would be four times as dense as other areas of North Lawrence.
And that could be only the beginning.
A North Lawrence Neighborhood Plan once estimated that 155 acres of vacant or agricultural land in the area was zoned for such development of single-family homes. That's enough to soak up 820 new homes, which would double the current housing stock in a neighborhood that boasted a population high of 2,500 residents -- in 1867.
Talk about a change in atmosphere.
"Unless there are some revisions to the development standards to ensure larger lot sizes, there will be a noticeable change in character," said Sheila Stogsdill, the city's assistant planning director. "If there aren't any changes to the current development standards, then eventually it has the potential to develop as other neighborhoods within Lawrence " at four units to the acre."
Value drives demand
John Chaney, owner of J.M.C. Construction Inc., dismisses any possibility of a double-the-housing scenario. He sees a potential for only another 60 or 80 homes anywhere in the neighborhood, given the central placement of homes on large lots and other factors.
Not that North Lawrence couldn't use more.
"There is a desire for affordable housing in Lawrence. That's what's driving the demand," said Chaney, who is building eight homes in his Bismarck Gardens subdivision, northeast of North Seventh and North streets, where another 32 homes are possible if the city grants him permission to complete the 9-acre site.
The subdivision would not add a drop to any drainage problems elsewhere in the neighborhood, he said, thanks to a planned half-acre detention pond.
And he knows people would buy the homes.
"Almost all of my customers are first-time home buyers or retired. A lot of them could not qualify for a house anywhere else," said Chaney, who figures his new North Lawrence homes sell for $6,000 to $12,000 less than comparable homes elsewhere in town. "That's big. For a lot of people, just $1,000 would keep them from buying a house."
There's also more on the line than people wanting to buy homes. Retirements are at stake for some aging property owners.
"North Lawrence is changing," Chaney said. "A lot of the old truck gardeners are starting to sell their land. They're willing to sell, and they're using the money for retirement or nursing homes.
"If they (city officials) start putting a moratorium on building up here, it's going to affect people's property values."
Mayor Erv Hodges acknowledges the argument but also understands the reality.
Lawrence Municipal Airport is lining up for industrial growth. Site plans are pouring in for new warehouses, shops and other contractor-type businesses. Residential construction is scattered on lots that are changing hands.
The city has responded to concerns about drainage, water and sewer service in recent years with a new Maple Grove drainage ditch and pump station, a new sewage pump station, a set of pumps for draining the Union Pacific underpass and other projects. Taxpayers financed the reconstruction of North Second Street, which now has wider lanes and enough storm drains to handle even the heaviest rains.
Change is coming, Hodges said, but the city can't afford to bring it on too fast. He said it would be "difficult to approve any large development" in the neighborhood before drainage problems could be addressed, and that probably means spending about $6 million for three major projects -- work thought to be 25 or 30 years away.
In the interim, he said, the city may need to find some "special considerations" -- such as requiring larger lots for new homes and preserving impermeable surfaces for natural drainage -- to bridge the gap.
"To me, it's like rural development," Hodges said. "We need special requirements to limit rural development. North Lawrence -- when you consider the streets, roads and drainage -- probably falls in the same category, or close to it.
"You handle it by commission action right now. You say, 'Hey we're not going to approve anything over there, or much over there, until we do something about it.' "
Boyle, a North Lawrence resident since the Great Flood of '51, sees North Lawrence's antiquated infrastructure as both a blessing and a curse. Area residents must tolerate more flooding than others elsewhere in town, but the lack of curbs and other structures also help preserve the small-town feel, not to mention acting as a development-control device.
The expense of installing such urban features -- curbs, gutters, drainage pipes and wider streets among them -- typically falls on the shoulders of developers, who never lose sight of the bottom line.
"The way to control development is to make it more expensive," Boyle said. "The stormwater is the No. 1 priority over here. If they don't take care of that, we'll fight 'em to the end."
-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
FLOOD BAIL OUT?
Owners of at least one flood-prone North Lawrence property want the city to bail them out.
Richard and Debbie Chalender want the city to buy their home at 234 N. Eighth, saying that flooding has become more frequent as new homes were built nearby. They've had water in their house twice during the past six months.
"I'm tired of it," Richard Chalender told Lawrence city commissioners three weeks ago. "I'm willing to take a buyout and be on my way."
Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the request tonight, during their 6:35 meeting at city hall, Sixth and Massachusetts.