During a Lawrence Planning Commission meeting last month, projects totaling 140 single-family homes, 70 apartment units, 16 acres of office development and 50 acres of commercial development were told they couldn't get building permits because of sewer concerns.
That scares Phil Struble, president of Landplan Engineering, the city's most prominent land-use engineering firm.
Struble has spent hours looking at population projections for the city's northwest growth corridor since city planners last month said they couldn't issue building permits for new projects until they could ensure the sewer system won't be overloaded.
He's worried the city has missed the mark in planning for its most active growth area. And he fears sewer problems are just one of many troubles it will create.
"These numbers are hugely low," Struble said of the city's population projections for the years 2010 and 2025. "What I don't have any confidence in these days is everything. I'm wondering about everything else we've missed on."
Struble makes his living by helping developers build projects, so anything that slows growth is bad for business. And the sewer issue has definitely slowed growth.
Even though that's not how City Commissioner David Schauner makes his living, he's equally concerned.
"I think we're behind the curve in this entire area," Schauner said of the northwest area, which is basically north and west of Kasold Drive and Sixth Street. "I don't think anybody has a good handle on how accurate these population projections are."
Schauner's worried it will lead to expensive city projects for sewers and roads.
"I'm really afraid these numbers say Sixth Street is going to fail and fail early," Schauner said of the westernmost portion of Sixth Street now undergoing a $13 million upgrade by the state and city.
"Really, what I know now is that we have some damn tough questions, and somebody had better have some damn good answers."
Calling for calm
City staff members are searching for answers. But City Manager Mike Wildgen said his staff has been through this drill before.
He said parts of the northwest area are growing faster than the city sewer plan anticipated. That means the city's sewer plan needs to be updated, and consultants have been hired to do that. A report is due in early 2006. It will be the fifth update to the plan since 1995. Some projects - probably more than $1 million worth - will have to be done one or two years sooner than expected to get the sewer system back on track.
"What this means is we're recognizing that we live in a world that is not static," Wildgen said. "There may be communities that can get by without updating their master plans for 10 years, but Lawrence is not one of them."
But Struble and other developers say this time is different. Developers were taken aback by conditions placed on projects that were in the final stages of approval. The conditions will stop developers from getting a building permit until more studies are done, perhaps resulting in a delay of a year or more.
Struble said he's particularly concerned because the population numbers don't seem off by a little, but by a lot. For example, he said the city estimates that much of the northwest area will have only 6.5 people per acre living on it through 2025.
He said that can't be the case. Developers typically can fit three single-family homes on an acre. For planning purposes, each single-family home is generally considered to have three people. That would be nine people per acre if the entire area was developed with single-family homes. But he said that's not a realistic assumption because the area already has several high-density apartment complexes and duplex neighborhoods. Those more intense uses likely would push the average closer to 12 to 15 people per acre.
"The planning parameters are not anywhere close to reality," said David Reynolds, co-owner of Apple Tree Homes. "I have real fault with the management of City Hall because no one seemed to be asking if these numbers made sense."
City staff members this week didn't have detailed explanations about those numbers. Instead they said the development community may be trying to use the sewer master plan in ways it wasn't designed to be used. Staff members noted that the plan is best at showing overall population numbers. The report has the city's overall population growing at 2 percent to 2.7 percent per year, which would put it at or above the area's historical average.
But Struble, who designs sewer systems, said the more detailed numbers are critical to the situation that the city faces.
"We started asking this summer where they got those numbers and nobody knows," Struble said. "I have no idea who would give them that information."
Black & Veatch, one of the country's larger engineering firms, prepared the $250,000 wastewater report, completed in 2003. But the report clearly states the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Department provided all growth projections for the report.
Wildgen said staff members are reviewing how those projections were made, and Black & Veatch also has been asked to prepare a written response. That response wasn't available last week.
If answers come back that population projections are significantly off, the northwest area's problems likely will be spotted spilling onto Sixth Street.
Population projections, along with land-use projections, were important factors in designing improvements to Sixth Street between the South Lawrence Trafficway and Wakarusa Drive. That $13 million project - $11 million funded by the state and $2 million funded by the city - is under way.
Struble said he suspected nearly every intersection on the improved stretch of road would have to be torn out and enlarged with more turn lanes and other traffic devices within a few years.
"Once we tie real streets into that road, the intersections are going to be way underdesigned," Struble said.
Wildgen said it is possible that intersections will need improvements in the next 10 years, which means crews would be rebuilding parts of the road before the bonds for the current project are paid off.
But Wildgen said that wasn't a sign of bad planning. He said cities always struggle with how far to design a project into the future versus how much money they have to spend today. He added that if road improvements are needed, developers may be asked to pay for a portion of the cost.
"We feel like we have gotten a lot of bang for our buck with that project," Wildgen said. "We're very thankful for what we got from the state. Could we have used another $5 million? Sure, we could have put it to use, but that's always the case."
No growth questions
The development community has been buzzing - in some cases, roaring - over the northwest area situation since Lawrence-Douglas County Planning commissioners were first briefed about it late last month.
Some believe the city's situation isn't the result of a simple mistake. Some believe it is a tactic by someone or some group to slow down the city's growth.
"I do believe there is a motive in this town to slow growth down, and I do believe there is a motive to stop growth if possible," Reynolds said.
But several city commissioners come to another conclusion.
"There is an absolute disconnect if that is what people think," said City Commissioner Mike Rundle. "In my opinion, this is all about a colossal error made by our professional staff and our consultants.
"But we definitely know this is no laughing matter."
On that, developers agree. They said the city's economy has much to lose if new development in the area is slowed.
"KU may be the largest employer in town, but in terms of being the largest tax generator, the construction industry has to be it," Reynolds said. "They're horsing around with and jeopardizing the largest tax generator in the city. They're playing with fire."