Olathe — Despite a parade of critics who asked to delay the decision, Johnson County commissioners Thursday affirmed their choice of a Kansas City firm to develop the defunct Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near De Soto.
"I think future generations in Johnson County will say this decision is the right one," said Annabeth Surbaugh, the commission chairwoman, before the 5-2 vote in favor of Kessinger/Hunter and Co.
Kessinger/Hunter has proposed a mix of commercial, residential and park uses for the site where propellants for bombs were manufactured from 1942 through 1989. The site will require tens of millions of dollars to be spent on removal of hazardous waste from the manufacturing process. Officials said the cleanup cost would be borne by Kessinger/Hunter and cleanup could take as long as seven years.
But opponents said the commission should have given rival developers more time to come up with competing proposals. Others said they wanted the land to remain largely open space.
"Giving the land back to the people is a way to protect the environment," said Evelyn Johnson, who lives within a mile of the 9,065-acre site.
"There are people in this community, I'm quite convinced, who don't want anything to happen out there," said Commissioner Doug Wood, who voted for Kessinger/Hunter. "It's not on the pretext of preserving open space. They fear the future. They fear change."
Johnson County has long declared its intention to acquire the land, which was declared surplus property by the federal government, to transfer to a private company for a business, residential and private development.
The county has a role because the federal government will negotiate a sale price with local governments, not private developers. Don Jarrett, Johnson County's chief counsel, said the estimated sale price would be in the $55 million to $90 million range.
But there are competing claims. The Shawnee Indian Tribe is suing the federal government for rights to the land, saying it was once part of a larger Shawnee reservation. Scott Beeler, the tribe's attorney, asked commissioners to delay their decision Thursday until the lawsuit is settled.
"You do not see the Shawnee Tribe out entering into contracts or appointing or approving developers for property that we do not, as yet, control," Beeler said. "We respectfully submit that neither does Johnson County control this property."
"We certainly respect the Indians' issue," Jarrett said. "That's a federal issue. Our perspective has been to proceed that if the Indians lose, we have to protect our interests."
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius also must sign off on the project. Wednesday, she told commissioners in a letter that a life sciences research park must be part of the project to receive her approval. She asked county officials to contact Kansas University and other interested parties.
Kansas University owns land adjoining the Sunflower property, officials said Thursday.
Commissioners noted Thursday that a research park already was part of the plan, though they also chafed at the ultimatum.
"She has a lot of muscle for a slender lady," Wood said, adding, "The last time I checked, she doesn't live in Johnson County."
Two commissioners, Edward Peterson and John Toplikar, voted against the resolution approving Kessinger/Hunter, saying other developers should have been given more time.
"My 'no' vote basically reflects what I consider to be a process that does not currently reflect the will of the people," Toplikar said. "It's a process that could have been handled better."
Wood and Surbaugh voted for the resolution, along with Dolores Furtado, David Lindstrom and Susie Wolf.
Commissioners voted unanimously to form a "redevelopment authority" to oversee the project on the county's behalf.
After the vote, Kessinger/Hunter officials issued a press release calling the action "a milestone in the process to remediate the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant and develop the property for its highest and best uses."
Under the terms of the resolution, Jarrett now has nine months to negotiate the purchase price, the plan specifics and other details with Kessinger/Hunter.
"Far from this finally concluding things," Jarrett said, "this is more like kicking off the football game."