Breaking official silence on the matter, Mayor David Dunfield offered a fresh defense Tuesday of City Hall's refusal to allow construction of a proposed Wal-Mart store in northwest Lawrence.
Because of six pending lawsuits, commissioners generally have refrained from commenting on the dispute. But Dunfield raised the issue during his "State of the City" speech Tuesday -- without mentioning Wal-Mart by name.
Instead, he noted the initial rejection of Wal-Mart's development plans for Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive was by the previous Lawrence City Commission, a body that wasn't as tied to "smart-growth" interests.
"When representatives of that development argue that they have been prohibited from building based on an approved plan, they are simply wrong," Dunfield said in the speech, given before Tuesday's commission meeting. "The department store use that 6Wak (the property owner) wants to build was rejected by the previous commission on a supermajority vote."
Prohibited use claimed
In its defense against the lawsuits, the city has argued that Wal-Mart is a "department store" prohibited under terms of the site's zoning. Wal-Mart and the property owners, 6Wak Land Investments, say their establishment is a "variety store" under city codes, allowed at the site.
The lawsuits have cost taxpayers more than $138,000 in legal bills so far.
"The current commission's actions have not contradicted those of its predecessor," Dunfield said.
Bill Newsome, a partner in 6Wak Land Investments, had a different idea.
"Which commission took which action is not the point," Newsome said. "The point is that our development plan is not being honored, and it is legal and binding."
After the mayor's speech, however, the commission deferred final action to rezone the site so that no store larger than 80,000 square feet would be allowed; Wal-Mart's proposal calls for a 132,000-square-foot store. Commissioners attributed the delay to confusion over what land uses would be allowed under the rezoning -- a department store was listed in the rezoning ordinance as a permitted use.
Litany of accomplishments
Not all of the mayor's speech was devoted to controversy.
Dunfield praised city staffers for their work in the past year, particularly in the aftermath of the May tornado and in keeping Lawrence calm during Kansas University's run to the NCAA men's basketball championship game last April.
|Chat online with incoming Mayor Mike Rundle next week at www.ljworld.com.Rundle, who by tradition is expected to become mayor at Tuesday's commission meeting, will take questions from chat participants beginning at 2 p.m. April 8.|
He touted the increasing number of city services online and the prospect of a federally designated National Heritage Area expected to emphasize the Lawrence area's "Bleeding Kansas" history.
And Dunfield said the next year would bring new proposals to give City Hall "a more active role in shaping how the city grows." He praised the rise of a "smart-growth" majority on the City Commission, the result of the April 2003 elections.
"I see little real evidence of a 'party line' division on this commission," Dunfield said. "I think that the last election should be seen as a culmination of a trend taking place over several years toward what has been termed, for better or worse, 'smart growth.'"
Lawrence's reputation for bruising battles over hot issues should be seen in a positive light, he said.
"Sometimes we worry that Lawrence is a divisive place, that the openness and vigor of our public discourse indicates that we lack direction or cohesion," Dunfield said.
"I believe to the contrary, that our arguments are a sign of community strength," he said. "The participation of our citizens means that we are passionate about Lawrence, and the enormous effort contributed by citizen volunteers is a key to our success as a community."