Developers wanting to know whether they can proceed with new projects in Lawrence's popular northwest growth corridor received a clear answer Wednesday.
City commissioners said they weren't confident the city's sewer system could handle additional growth - in large part because they are no longer confident City Hall staffers planned for the right number of people in the area.
In some parts of northwest Lawrence, there might be more residents than were expected by 2010.
"I think we're in a situation where we don't know what is going on," City Commissioner Sue Hack said at a morning study session. "This has opened up a big can of worms."
Such concerns - about the area near Kasold Drive and Peterson Road - led to a utility department recommendation earlier this month that building permits for the neighborhood should be halted until further studies of the sewer system can be completed.
Those studies likely won't be completed until March or April, officials said, and it could take several more months to fix any problems that the report uncovers.
Developers said the entire situation had created an unhealthy level of uncertainty threatening Lawrence's future growth.
"There are a lot of people who don't know what to think," Mark Buhler, an executive at Stephens Real Estate, told commissioners. "Five thousand questions are coming with every situation right now."
Looking for answers
The building industry is generally considered one of the engines of the city's economy. A shutdown in building permits could have ripple effects on jobs and wages.
But city officials tried to assure developers that not all building will come to a halt in the area. Debbie Van Saun, assistant city manager, said 400 single-family home sites in the northwest area have been approved and should still receive building permits despite sewer concerns.
Van Saun said the number of new building permits issued for the area should have been more closely monitored by City Hall. But she added that dealing with population projections was difficult.
"It is kind of a crystal ball type of situation," Van Saun said. "It (population projecting) might be more of an art than a science, but we would like for it to become more of a science."
Hack chided staff members for the confusion.
"To have that deer in the headlights look, I can do that well enough on my own," Hack said. "The point I'm making is that I didn't know anything about this, and I think that is wrong that commissioners didn't know this because it has a tremendous impact on our community."
City staffers now recommend that new studies go beyond just sewers. Van Saun said the entire Northwest Area Plan - the document that guides growth for the area - needs updating.
If the sewer studies confirm the problems that staff members suspect, City Hall could enlarge sewer pump stations and add new lines in the area. That could be expensive, Van Saun said, or delay other infrastructure problems around town.
Several city commissioners, though, said the issue had to be addressed.
"If we don't have the facilities for wastewater, we don't have growth," City Commissioner Mike Amyx said.
Hack said she was interested in finding out why the projections were wrong - and in holding proper people accountable.
"That's going to have to be a serious city commission and staff discussion," Hack said.
City staffers, though, said they believed they were taking the prudent steps. Van Saun said that was better than learning about the problems after sewers began to back up into basements or overflow at pump stations.
"We're trying to be more forward thinking and less reactionary," Van Saun said.