Lawrence city commissioners are being asked to move a step closer to a legal showdown with Kansas University over how its campus grows into adjoining neighborhoods.
At issue: Whether off-campus KU building projects will be governed by the city's zoning codes and consider the wishes of KU's neighbors.
"There is a long history of the university dumping on the neighborhoods," said David Burress, a member of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission. "I think in the long run, we'll have to go to court."
At its meeting Wednesday, the planning commission rejected a proposed KU-city agreement on development. Instead, planning commissioners recommended the city reopen negotiations with the university on the issue.
Thursday, KU Provost David Shulenburger said he could not guarantee the university would reopen talks.
"I wouldn't say that we won't talk further, but I will say that the university went a very, very long way in that agreement," he said. "There has to be a recognition that the university is a state agency and it can't submit its statewide mission to local zoning control."
The agreement, hammered out during a year of meetings that ended this fall, draws a figurative line around KU's campus. When the university expands beyond that line, it agrees to submit to city zoning rules and processes in the new areas. The city, in return, gives up its proposal to regulate development that occurs inside the line.
But the agreed-to line encompasses properties held by private landowners, including the Kansas University Endowment Association, that typically would be subject to city zoning rules.
The proposed agreement also would have required the university to consult with the city and neighbors if a KU project was within 150 feet of an existing neighborhood.
But requiring mere consultation is not enough, planning commissioners said. If talks fail, they said, the city should require university projects that abut neighborhoods to comply with city zoning regulations, as other projects must.
And planning commissioners warned the city should be ready to defend itself in court, saying that would be the likely outcome when the city tries to force the university to comply with zoning rules. The university maintains that because it is state-owned, it is not subject to city codes.
Several residents of neighborhoods near the university urged the city to put more teeth into the proposed agreement or be prepared to battle the university in a courtroom. Neighbors were particularly concerned that the agreement exempted Endowment Association properties. Some of those properties are embedded in existing neighborhoods.
"The university is a 600-pound gorilla that wants us to believe it has changed its spots," said Bill Mitchell, who lives just west of the university's main campus. "But one cannot live civilly with a 600-pound gorilla. If they won't budge, then we should stand up to them."
City Commissioner Boog Highberger, who was on the city's negotiating team, said he wasn't sure it was in the city's best interest to abandon the proposed agreement.
"I think the agreement offers some benefit to the city, but not as much as the neighbors want or as much as I want," he said. "But I wasn't convinced that if we went to court we'd do any better or even get as much."
Negotiations were sparked by the 2002 battle over KU's decision to demolish three century-old houses in the 1300 block of Ohio Street.
Two of those houses eventually were torn down -- and one later was moved -- despite fierce opposition from nearby residents who said KU had broken a promise not to encroach on their neighborhood.
City officials indicated last year they were close to creating a university zoning district to create some power over campus expansion. KU officials responded in June 2003 to the proposed zoning district by threatening a lawsuit against the city.
But instead, Chancellor Robert Hemenway and then-Mayor David Dunfield appointed a committee to look for a compromise on the issue.
On Wednesday, planning commissioners unanimously recommended the city pursue reopening talks, but several said the city should be careful about becoming embroiled in a lawsuit.
City commissioners are expected to discuss the issue at a meeting in December, though a date has not been set.