It's good news that a couple of private firms are showing an interest in buying and rehabilitating the property occupied by the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant east of Lawrence.
The 467-acre site, which is part of the Farmland bankruptcy proceedings, will be sold at auction, and, according to a trust administrator for Farmland, at least four groups have shown serious interest in the property.
One of those groups is Lawrence and Douglas County, which could ensure complete control over the cleanup and development of the tract by purchasing it. With that control, however, would come considerable risk in terms of addressing environmental concerns at the site and marketing the property.
Having a private firm buy, clean up and develop the site eliminates the risk for local government, which still would maintain a certain amount of control, through annexation and zoning, over how the property is developed.
Two firms have revealed their interest in the Farmland property. Both Environmental Liability Transfer Inc. of St. Louis and TRC Companies Inc., a Connecticut-based firm that specializes in cleaning up hazardous sites, say they will propose a development for the tract that would include industrial, retail and residential uses.
Although local officials had previously contended that they would accept only an industrial use for the property, County Commissioner Bob Johnson said this week there might be some wiggle room on that stand as a trade-off to attract private investment in the land.
Perhaps local officials should show some flexibility on this point, but they shouldn't mislead potential purchasers about what they would find acceptable for this property. The Farmland bankruptcy trustee said that, unlike the city and county, the trust sees no problem with some of the site being used for residential or retail development. About 250 acres of the site have no environmental issues, he said.
That may be the judgment of the trust, but placing residences on the property still seems to have an element of risk. Doubts about the safety of the site might make it difficult to sell homes there, and any health problems suffered by future residents of the area might trigger legal claims against the developers.
Much of that risk would be shouldered by a private developer, but if city and county officials are firm in their resolve not to allow residential development on the site, they should make that clear now, rather than after someone has purchased the property.
Both of the private firms that have expressed interest in the Farmland property have experience with cleaning up property with environmental problems and developing it for other purposes. They, probably more than city and county officials, know what they are getting into with the Farmland property. The fact they are willing to tackle the job is a positive sign.
Handing this project over to a private firm would have many advantages for the city and county, but it doesn't eliminate the need for local officials to carefully monitor plans for the property and to make key decisions about what they would and wouldn't find acceptable for the site.