Lawrence city commissioners want to make 2006 the year they stop playing catch-up with the community's ever-expanding list of growth issues.
"It is time to stop this conversation about wanting to get ahead of growth, and instead just start doing it," City Commissioner David Schauner said Thursday at a study session designed to help commissioners plan for the new year.
Commissioners agreed that they want to at least discuss changing the city's annexation policy from one that responds to requests from developers to one that annexes large sections of land in anticipation of development occurring there in the next three to five years.
"I think it would give the developers more predictability, and it would give the city more control over its planning," said Mayor Boog Highberger, who is championing the policy change.
Fellow city commissioners largely agreed with the need to be more aggressive, but also worried that a change in policy could have significant implications on the city's budget.
That's because the current system of waiting until developers bring a project forward basically assures the city that developers are willing to pay for part of the costs to install roads, sewers and other infrastructure.
But if the city initiates the annexation process, the area may include land that property owners don't have immediate plans to develop, and thus wouldn't be ready to help pay for infrastructure. In that case, the city could force those property owners to pay for the infrastructure by placing them in a benefit district against their will, which city commissioners have been hesitant to do in the past.
Or the city could choose to pay the infrastructure costs up front and eventually recoup the cost from property owners as the land is developed. On Thursday, commissioners seemed more interested in the latter option.
"What we have been told is it takes more up-front money, and you are left with figuring out ways to recoup those costs down the line," City Commissioner Sue Hack said. "But we'll have to bite the bullet in the beginning, and I think it will be a pretty big bullet."
But there will be long-term payoffs for the city, Highberger said. One of the biggest is that the city will be more directly responsible for laying out the streets that serve new neighborhoods and commercial developments. That should make it more likely that new areas of town will be better equipped to accommodate traffic and pedestrians.
"It would allow us to plan real neighborhoods instead of disconnected subdivisions," Highberger said.
Some members of the development community, though, are urging the city to approach the change with caution. Mark Buhler, an executive with Stephens Real Estate and a former county commissioner, said the new policy would add costs to the city's budget.
"They need to go into this with their eyes wide open," Buhler said. "This will get them into the borrowing and financing business in a large way, and they will definitely need more staff to do everything they're talking about."
Plus, Buhler said, developers would be worried that one City Commission would set the community on one growth path, but later a different City Commission would reverse course and look elsewhere.
"There's going to have to be some consistency in the vision," he said.
Staying ahead of growth likely will take more than a new annexation policy, commissioners were told. City Manager Mike Wildgen said there was a need to prioritize the growing list of major projects that commissioners have expressed an interest in funding.
Within the last year, commissioners have discussed proposals for a new library, purchase of the abandoned Farmland Industries plant, a program to add industrial and open-space land, construction of a new multipurpose sports complex and several other smaller projects. Costs haven't been attached to most of those projects, but they'll likely add up to more than the city can cover in the short-term.
"We really don't have a lot of choices about how we're going to fund a lot of these projects," Wildgen said. "A lot of times it comes down to taxes, so at some point you are going to have to decide what really is the No. 1 priority."
Commissioners didn't start that ranking exercise Thursday, but agreed they must.
"We need to put them all up there on the wall and make some decisions," Schauner said. "It is just like your budget at home. You have to decide whether you are going to take a vacation to Europe or put braces on your kid."