The sewer crisis that has gripped the city the past five months is beginning to cost the construction industry real jobs, a Lawrence builder said Thursday.
Tim Stultz, president of Highland Construction, said he's laid off two employees and plans to lay off another two now that city administrators have refused to grant his company a building permit for a 70-unit apartment complex at Queens Road and Overland Drive.
Administrators aren't allowing the project to move forward because they're concerned the area's sewer system can't handle the growth.
"It's frustrating," Stultz said. "I've been planning this for a year and a half, and now I can't do it. And I just can't go out and buy new land and start building on it because the approval process in this town takes years."
Stultz said the four jobs - mainly those of managers who were supposed to oversee various aspects of the apartment project - are just the tip of the iceberg. He said the entire project had a $6 million price tag, and he estimated $2 million of the project would have been wages for subcontractors that range from roofers to carpet layers.
"I don't think people understand how big of a hit the Lawrence economy takes when you start putting the brakes on the building industry," said Stultz, whose company had about 15 employees before the layoffs.
An engineering report due out in late spring is expected to spell out what improvements are needed to the area's sewer system, but Stultz estimated it would be two years before he would be able to start his project because it will take time to build the sewer improvements that must be finished before his project can come on line.
City leaders acknowledge that the situation is a difficult one. But Debbie Van Saun, assistant city manager, said it is very apparent to the city's utility staff that the pump station in the area is undersized to serve the amount of development for the area, and that several pipes downstream of the development need to be enlarged to handle the additional flow that would be created by the project.
"I know Tim is frustrated, but we can't just let all this sewage come in here and not worry about how it gets pumped," Van Saun said. "It will go somewhere, and if we don't do it right it will go in people's basements."
Stultz's frustrations were compounded by the fact that he has paid a special assessment on his property taxes for approximately the past two years to pay for the pump station. He's also built roads that serve the property and had water and electric service extended to the site. He estimates that, including design costs, he's spent about $1 million on the apartment project already. It was the project that was expected to keep his company busy through the important summer construction season.
And the situation is complicated by the fact that part of the reason the pump station is at its capacity is because city leaders made a decision to begin using the pump station to handle sewage from nearby Free State High School. The school previously had been served by a different pump station. But Van Saun said the city decided to make the switch because the amount of sewage coming from the school was creating concerns downstream. Moving the school to a different pump station freed up capacity in other parts of the city's system.
And Van Saun said the city was justified in making the switch because, just like Stultz, the city paid for a portion of the pump station's cost. And Van Saun noted that Stultz has been allowed to use the pump station to service a single family neighborhood that he has built in the area.
Van Saun, though, acknowledged it would have been better if Stultz and other developers in the area had been alerted to the sewer issues when they first began planning their projects. They weren't alerted because the city did not foresee the problems, she said.
She said a new engineer has since been added to the utility department, and that the city is requiring more downstream analysis to be done before projects are approved.
City commissioners said they believe the changes should prevent future projects being approved without the necessary infrastructure considerations. But commissioners also have been alerted that there are several other projects that were approved - or deep into the planning process - before the changes were made that may face delays similar to what Stultz is facing.
"I think with the hiring of the additional engineer in the utility department, and with all the time that Debbie and staff have been spending on this, that we're on top of things for the future," City Commissioner Sue Hack said. "But I know that doesn't alleviate the frustration with where we are right now. I'm very, very sorry that some projects haven't been allowed to move forward."