Tensions increased Wednesday over concerns that a new $76 million sewer plant - deemed critical to future city growth - won't be built on time.
"Getting this plant on line by 2011 is absolutely imperative," said Phil Struble, president of Landplan Engineering. "It will impact projects all over Lawrence."
The concerns about the project's progress were voiced at a joint meeting of city, county and school district officials.
The meeting was meant to give planners a better sense of whether to select a site east or west of U.S. Highway 59 for the plant slated to be built south of the Wakarusa River.
But instead, the meeting raised doubts that elected officials have fully considered how the new waste treatment facility might shape development for decades to come.
"I can't think of many issues that will have a bigger, long-term impact on this community," said Douglas County Commission Chairman Charles Jones. "I just think we need to talk through more of these issues."
Not only are city officials still trying to select a site, but also what type of plant will be built there.
The facility is expected to be the single most expensive public works project in Lawrence history. It has major ramifications for the school district, the county and the city because it is expected to play a large role in shaping the direction of future development.
If the plant is built west of U.S. 59, officials predict it will spur growth in the next 25 years that will more likely stay within the boundaries of the Lawrence school district. If the plant is built east of the highway, it likely would spur growth in the Baldwin school district.
But the joint meeting produced more questions than answers.
Board members and commissioners debated whether a full analysis should be done comparing the costs of southwest versus southeast growth.
For example, Jones said it seemed clear that growth to the southwest would better benefit the Lawrence school district. But growth to the southeast, he said, may produce fewer infrastructure costs related to roads and may make more sense given that Johnson County has become a major employment base for Lawrence residents.
Though development isn't expected to happen right next to a sewer plant, its location is expected to direct growth because it will determine where developers can most cheaply install sewers and thus more cheaply build homes.
"I'm afraid we're about to let sewers guide our growth, when it really should be the other way around," Jones said.
But extensive analysis could push the plant behind schedule, which could cause the city's building industry to grind to a halt by 2011. Engineers have said the city's one existing sewer treatment plant wouldn't have capacity to handle sewage from new developments.
"We have a drop-dead date here, and this is an issue that you really don't want to drop dead on," City Commissioner Sue Hack said.
But some city commissioners said they didn't like the idea of making such an important decision without more information.
City Commissioner David Schauner said the community would pay for a bad decision for years to come through increased operation and infrastructure costs, all of which would lead to higher utility bills and taxes.
"It is possible that there could be some short-term consequences if we don't get it done by 2011, but there could be some real long-term consequences if we just focus on meeting an artificial deadline," Schauner said.
Struble told the group that if the plant falls behind schedule, it would severely damage Lawrence's ability to grow.
"There are so many projects tied to getting that done by 2011 because there is really no doubt that the current plant will be out of capacity. I have no question about that," Struble said.
Though 2011 is still five years away, the project already is on a tight timeline. The project requires a multitude of state and federal permits. Design work on the plant also can't begin until a site is selected. Getting a specific site - which could be several hundred acres - could be a year-long process because it likely will involve negotiating with several landowners. Design work is expected to take two years, and construction would take another two years.
Members from each of the three governments agreed to consider issues related to the sewer plant and meet again as a group, likely within a month, to try to form a consensus. Technically, the site selection decision rests entirely with city commissioners.