City officials have serious concerns about whether they can provide sewer service to new developments in the rapidly growing northwest area of Lawrence.
Dave Wagner, the city's assistant director of utilities, told Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commissioners Wednesday night that his department was uncomfortable with proposed neighborhoods receiving building permits until a new sewer study is completed in late December.
Wagner said his department has concerns that larger-than-expected growth in the area may cause the sewer system to overflow and allow raw sewage to back up into basements around the city.
"We're not saying that (the system) will work or won't work," Wagner said. "We're saying we're not sure."
Several city commissioners said they found the news disturbing.
"We have a serious problem here," said City Commissioner Mike Amyx. "We really do."
Planning commissioners agreed Wednesday to place conditions on two sets of plans - a 13-lot single family and multifamily neighborhood at the southeast corner of West Sixth Street and Stoneridge Drive, and a 70-unit apartment complex at 445 Eisenhower Drive - stopping those projects from pulling building permits until the utility department makes further determinations about the area's sewer capacity.
Wagner told planning commissioners that it was likely that other proposed developments in the northwest area would need to have similar conditions placed upon them when they come before the planning commission. Several planning commissioners indicated they would have little choice but to add the conditions.
"The news for developers is pretty bad," said Planning Commissioner David Burress.
Wagner and his staff did not provide detailed maps of all the areas that they are concerned about, but said it included a large area of prime development ground south and west and north and west of the Kasold Drive and Peterson Road intersection.
Wagner also said he could not guarantee that the city would be in a position to begin issuing building permits in the area by January. He said if the study, which is under way, confirms that the sewer lines are at or near capacity, the city will need to decide how to fix the problem before building permits could be issued.
"I think we're on the road to not being able to pull building permits for a year or more," said Phil Struble, president of Landplan Engineering, which provides engineering services for developers across the community.
Wagner said there was some evidence that the system's pipes are too full. He said a sewage pumping station at Sixth and Kentucky streets overflowed and spilled raw sewage into the Kansas River during last Friday's rain storm. Wagner said the incident was reported to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and the amount of sewage was not enough to trigger a fine.
"If it was a continuing situation, I'm sure KDHE would be knocking on our door," Wagner said.
Struble said many members of the development community are puzzled about the entire situation. The city had Black & Veatch engineers complete a major sewer study for the entire community in 2003. That study was designed to project system needs through 2010, and it did not indicate any problems for the northwest area.
But Wagner said his office became concerned when they reviewed building permit numbers and realized that growth was outpacing what was projected in the study. The department found in some areas there already was more population than was anticipated for 2010.
Struble said, if true, that creates serious concerns about the city's planning because the developments in the area have been proposed since at least 2001.
"I'm not on a witch hunt here, but if we underestimated this, what else did we underestimate?" Struble said.
Thus far, the utility department hasn't proposed placing restrictions on projects in the area that already have received final approval from city commissioners but have not yet obtained a building permit. Currently, the building permit restriction is only planned for projects that are in the approval pipeline.