Settle in for a whole new round of Wal-Mart debate.
A trial involving whether the city illegally denied a building permit for a Wal-Mart at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive has been delayed until September to give the city and developers more time to explore a settlement of the lawsuit. The trial was scheduled to begin Monday.
"I would much prefer to have some conversation rather than litigation," Mayor Sue Hack said. "I don't see it as caving in or anything like that. I just see it as a chance to have some conversation."
Douglas County District Judge Michael Malone on Friday granted a request made by the city and the site's developers to delay the trial. It now is scheduled for Sept. 10.
Earlier this week, Hack sent a letter to attorneys for Wal-Mart and the property owners asking them to agree to the delay - to give new city commissioners an opportunity to consider the Wal-Mart issue.
Hack said the continuance would provide time to schedule a Wal-Mart discussion on the city's May 1 agenda.
It would be the first opportunity for the City Commission to have a public discussion since Rob Chestnut and Mike Dever were elected April 3. Chestnut and Dever replaced Commissioners Mike Rundle and David Schauner, who made up two-thirds of a majority that opposed the most recent plan to build a Wal-Mart at the site.
Wal-Mart and the property owners ultimately agreed to the delay. Doug Compton and Bill Newsome, who own the development company that owns the proposed site, issued a joint statement saying they were interested to hear what the city had to say.
"While we were initially opposed to any delay in the trial, upon receiving the letter from the city, we decided in a show of good faith to concur with the city's request to delay the trial," they said in the statement. "We'll be at the May 1 City Commission meeting, and we're anxious to hear what the city has to say."
Attempts to reach a Wal-Mart spokeswoman were unsuccessful.
Hack said the May 1 agenda item would not include consideration of a specific development plan. Instead, it would be an opportunity for the city and the developer to openly discuss issues surrounding the project.
Hack also said that the commission will accept public comment from neighbors and others. She did ask that citizens consider mailing or e-mailing the comments to the city prior to the meeting.
Neighborhood leaders said they were glad they would have the opportunity to express their concerns about the project.
"I just hope commissioners will keep in mind that with the currently anticipated development in the area, we're going to have very heavy traffic loads," said Alan Cowles, president of the West Lawrence Neighborhood Association. "The risks to the children in the neighborhood are real."
Cowles, though, stopped short of criticizing the city for putting the trial on hold. He said he had to trust the city's judgment that delaying the trial was in the best interest of the city.
Not all city commissioners are convinced of that, however.
Commissioner Boog Highberger - who joined with Schauner and Rundle to vote against the last Wal-Mart plan in October - does not support the delay. He said previous efforts to settle the case have been unsuccessful, and that it should be settled "once and for all" in court.
At stake is how much development will be allowed at the corner. The city and Wal-Mart last year had reached a tentative agreement to allow a 99,990-square-foot store. But on a 3-2 vote, city commissioners ultimately rejected that plan after they did not like the specific design of the development. After that rejection, Wal-Mart restarted lawsuits that would allow the company to build a 132,000-square-foot store on the site. Lawrence's existing Wal-Mart store, 3300 Iowa, is 210,000 square feet. A 99,990-square-foot store would be just slightly larger than Wal-Mart's first Lawrence store - now the Sears store at 2727 Iowa Street.
Current zoning for the property - which was changed by the city in 2004 over the objections of the property owner - would allow for an 80,000-square-foot store and several smaller buildings.
City commissioners did not take a formal vote to send the letter seeking the delay in the trial. Instead, Hack sent the letter after commissioners had a closed-door executive session about Wal-Mart at their Tuesday evening meeting.