Archive for Sunday, April 25, 2004

Sewage treatment limits may stop up growth

April 25, 2004


Bill Newsome looks at 135 acres of farm fields southeast of Lawrence and sees vacant land thirsting for development.

Specifically, his Eastside Acquisitions LLC partnership foresees accommodating 126 homes, 312 townhome units, 520 apartments, a shopping center slightly larger than the Hy-Vee complex at Sixth Street and Monterey Way, and a 10-acre parcel big enough for some light-industrial operations.

"We have a plan that accommodates our development, which we believe to be a need-based, market-driven, mixed-use development," said Newsome, a partner in Southwind Capital LLC, which would develop the property. "It's the kind of development that should happen in Lawrence."

Whether it will, or, more precisely, when, could be decided in the coming weeks, as Lawrence and Douglas County elected officials sit down to lay a foundation for the city's expansion during the next eight years.

The reason: The city's existing sewage treatment plant is big enough to soak up some city expansion, but Newsome's plans southeast of Kansas Highway 10 and O'Connell Road, coupled with a larger 160-acre plat farther southeast, would stretch the system past its limit.

And with the city's planned $80 million sewage treatment plant along the Wakarusa River not expected to open until 2011 or 2012, elected officials could be forced into making some tough choices.

If there's not enough room to handle the hundreds of new homes already in the works, said Charles Jones, chairman of the County Commission, what would officials do if developers came to town with plans for a large manufacturing plant, processing center or anything else that could generate much-needed jobs and tax revenues?

Jones could foresee putting the brakes on residential growth, even considering a moratorium on building permits, if that's what it took, to save sewer space for potential new businesses.

Industrial approach

"My personal feeling is that industrial growth is terribly important to the health of this community," said Jones, who has pushed for identification of 1,000 acres in the county that could be used for such development. "We've got to make sure that we have adequate capacity to support industrial growth over the next 10, 12 years."

The big discussion is expected to come May 5, when city and county commissioners are scheduled to meet to discuss the future of southeast Lawrence. Consultants hired by Eastside Acquisitions have proposed a plan to boost sewage-treatment services in the area, enough to bridge the gap between today's existing system and one to be supported by the new plant within a decade.

The existing system, fresh off a $46 million upgrade that boosted capacity from 9 million gallons a day to 12.5 million gallons a day, probably wouldn't be big enough to absorb all the waste generated by the proposed developments, officials say. That's why consultants, engineers, planners and other professionals are crunching the numbers to see what might work, and how.

"It can't all go to the existing plant," said Debbie Van Saun, an assistant city manager and former assistant utilities director. "You can't build it all at once. You can't develop it all at once because the existing plant can't handle it all at once."

'Question is timing'

Added Sandy Day, a city-county planner: "The question is timing. In the short term, do you want to eat up capacity -- or exhaust that capacity -- versus phasing it in some manner? That's the whole huge question. That's the policy decision that has to be made."

Such questions rankle Jere McElhaney, a county commissioner who fears that putting limits on residential development would do far more harm than good.

Elected officials have spent the past few years expanding the city's urban growth area to encourage developers and builders to explore sites along the city's fringes, where expanding roads, sewers and other public services would be the most cost-efficient, McElhaney said.

Slowing down plans to move into those areas, he said, would send the wrong message to the business community.

"You're talking about having a large impact on the economic viability of this community if you talk about cutting off construction of homes in this community," McElhaney said. "You've got excavators that work. You've got engineers that work. You've got plumbers, you've got electricians, you've got carpenters, wood suppliers, concrete people, roofers, landscape people -- you just can't take one segment out of our economic wheel and throw it out the window."

Newsome is looking forward to the discussion. It's better to talk about such issues now, he said, than when it's too late.

"We welcome planning in this area," he said. "We welcome planning for the future. And a proactive approach is good."

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